– in the House of Commons at 4:19 pm on 16th May 2023.
Order. The Front Bench there is reserved for His Majesty’s official Opposition. I would be delighted to suspend the House for 10 minutes so I could go and have a cup of tea, but I am sure hon. Members will take their usual positions in order that we can start the second Opposition day motion on behalf of the SNP.
I beg to move,
That this House believes that the Public Order Act constitutes a serious infringement on the rights of the people to protest; and makes provision as set out in this Order:
(b) any proceedings governed by this Order may be proceeded with until any hour, though opposed, and shall not be interrupted;
(c) the Speaker may not propose the question on the previous question, and may not put any question under
(d) at 12.30 pm, the Speaker shall interrupt any business prior to the business governed by this Order and call the Leader of the Scottish National Party Westminster Group or another Member on his behalf to present a Bill concerning the repeal of the Public Order Act 2023 of which notice of presentation has been given and immediately thereafter (notwithstanding the practice of the House) call a Member to move the motion that the Bill be now read a second time as if it were an order of the House;
(e) in respect of that Bill, notices of Amendments, new Clauses and new Schedules to be moved in Committee may be accepted by the Clerks at the Table before the Bill has been read a second time;
(f) any proceedings interrupted or superseded by this Order may be resumed or (as the case may be) entered upon and proceeded with after the moment of interruption.
(2) The provisions of paragraphs (3) to (18) of this Order shall apply to and in connection with the proceedings on the Bill in the present Session of Parliament.
Timetable for the Bill on
(3) (a) Proceedings on Second Reading and in Committee of the whole House, any proceedings on Consideration and proceedings up to and including Third Reading shall be taken at the sitting on
(b) Proceedings on Second Reading shall be brought to a conclusion (so far as not previously concluded) at 4.00 pm.
(c) Proceedings in Committee of the whole House, any proceedings on Consideration and proceedings up to and including Third Reading shall be brought to a conclusion (so far as not previously concluded) at 7.00 pm.
Timing of proceedings and Questions to be put on
(4) When the Bill has been read a second time:
(a) it shall, notwithstanding
(b) the Speaker shall leave the Chair whether or not notice of an Instruction has been given.
(5) (a) On the conclusion of proceedings in Committee of the whole House, the Chairman shall report the Bill to the House without putting any Question.
(b) If the Bill is reported with amendments, the House shall proceed to consider the Bill as amended without any Question being put.
(6) For the purpose of bringing any proceedings to a conclusion in accordance with paragraph (3), the Chairman or Speaker shall forthwith put the following Questions in the same order as they would fall to be put if this Order did not apply—
(a) any Question already proposed from the Chair;
(b) any Question necessary to bring to a decision a Question so proposed;
(c) the Question on any amendment, new clause or new schedule selected by the Chairman or Speaker for separate decision;
(d) the Question on any amendment moved or Motion made by a designated Member;
(e) any other Question necessary for the disposal of the business to be concluded; and shall not put any other Questions, other than the Question on any motion described in paragraph (15) of this Order.
(7) On a Motion made for a new Clause or a new Schedule, the Chairman or Speaker shall put only the Question that the Clause or Schedule be added to the Bill.
Consideration of Lords Amendments and Messages on a subsequent day
(8) If on any future sitting day any message on the Bill (other than a message that the House of Lords agrees with the Bill without amendment or agrees with any message from this House) is expected from the House of Lords, this House shall not adjourn until that message has been received and any proceedings under paragraph (9) have been concluded.
(9) On any day on which such a message is received, if a designated Member indicates to the Speaker an intention to proceed to consider that message—
(b) proceedings on consideration of Lords Amendments or on any further Message from the Lords shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion one hour after their commencement; and any proceedings suspended under subparagraph (a) shall thereupon be resumed;
(c) the Speaker may not propose the question on the previous question, and may not put any question under
(10) Paragraphs (2) to (7) of
(a) any reference to a Minister of the Crown were a reference to a designated Member;
(b) after paragraph (4)(a) there is inserted—
“(aa) the question on any amendment or motion selected by the Speaker for separate decision;”.
(11) Paragraphs (2) to (5) of
(12) (a) Paragraphs (2) to (6) of
(b) The composition of the committee shall (notwithstanding the practice of the House) have three members from the government, three members from the largest opposition party and one member from the second largest opposition party.
(14) (a) No Motion shall be made, except by a designated Member, to alter the order in which any proceedings on the Bill are taken, to recommit the Bill or to vary or supplement the provisions of this Order.
(b) No notice shall be required of such a Motion.
(c) Such a Motion may be considered forthwith without any Question being put; and any proceedings interrupted for that purpose shall be suspended accordingly.
(d) The Question on such a Motion shall be put forthwith; and any proceedings suspended under sub-paragraph (c) shall thereupon be resumed.
(15) (a) No dilatory Motion shall be made in relation to proceedings on the Bill to which this Order applies except by a designated Member.
(b) The Question on any such Motion shall be put forthwith.
(16) Proceedings to which this Order applies shall not be interrupted under any Standing Order relating to the sittings of the House.
(17) No private business may be considered at any sitting to which the provisions of this Order apply.
(18) (a) The start of any debate under
(b) Standing Order 15(1) (Exempted business) shall apply in respect of any such debate.
(19) In this Order, “a designated Member” means—
(a) the Leader of the Scottish National Party in this House; and
(b) any other Member acting on behalf of the Leader of the Scottish National Party in this House.
Honestly, I think it would have been quite sensible for the SNP to fulfil the Opposition role in this place, Mr Deputy Speaker, because it would appear that His Majesty’s Opposition are not bothering to turn up this afternoon for this desperately important debate.
The Public Order Act 2023 is a massive overstep in power. As my hon. Friend Stuart C. McDonald has said, it is
“a draconian and utterly unjustified attack on protest rights.”—[Official Report,
Vol. 729, c. 209.]
The right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association are fundamental human rights. The Public Order Act, both in the letter and in the application, which we saw during the coronation, not only undermines that right—it totally and completely shreds it.
I am interested that the SNP has chosen to utilise its Opposition day debate to discuss an Act with limited applicability in Scotland. I accept that Scots travelling to other parts of the UK would be subject to the Act, and police officers in mutual aid activities, but can the SNP Front-Bench spokesperson explain why the Scottish Government approved some of the Bill via legislative consent, although to a very limited extent? I would like to understand why the Scottish Government agreed to do that, given what is clearly very strong opposition to it in this place.
The hon. Lady makes the most important point: although the Bill’s territorial extent is England and Wales, anybody who comes to this city to protest—it could be any of our constituents, or any of us—falls under the remit of the Act. It does not discriminate by where someone is from. An Australian could end up getting arrested by accident. Any person who happens to be in the city and in the wrong place at the wrong time, or in the right place at the right time—exercising their right to protest—could end up in a jail cell because of the Act.
Is not the most important point that a lot of the things that our constituents in Scotland want to protest about are bad decisions taken in this place by the Government here? Quite rightly, they want to come to this Parliament to protest against the actions of this Parliament. To do so now, they have to put themselves at risk of being arrested simply for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
I absolutely agree. That is the dangerous nature of the Act.
Freedom of assembly in the UK now exists on the Government’s terms—when the Conservative party deigns to give that right. That right is now so conditional as to be meaningless. In my life, I have—like many of my colleagues—joined many protests, including the Make Poverty History march through the streets of Edinburgh, and protests and marches against the Iraq war. As a member of Scottish CND, I have protested outside Faslane. For migrant rights, I have protested on Brand Street and Kenmure Street. I protested against Labour’s school and nursery closures some years ago in Glasgow, for self-determination in Kashmir, and in support of Pride.
I would like to know what protests the Minister has joined in his time. That would be very informative for the House.
I often protested against the outrageous actions of the former Labour council in Croydon, which my constituency neighbour, Sarah Jones, knows all about. Alison Thewliss says that the right to protest has been all but extinguished, but the facts manifestly contradict that. During the coronation, which she is no doubt about to refer to, hundreds of people protested peacefully and lawfully. Moreover, on a daily basis—including certainly yesterday, and possibly today—Just Stop Oil protests lawfully in London. So her claim that protest has been all but outlawed is completely untrue.
The legislation is having a chilling effect on people’s ability to protest. The Minister knows that that is the case because that is the very purpose of the legislation.
I will go on. I have campaigned for the self-determination of Kashmir; I have supported the protest that is Pride; I supported the March of the Mummies along Whitehall; I have supported the Women Against State Pension Inequality campaigners, who have campaigned outside this building against the atrocious loss of their pension rights; I have joined trade union demos; I have joined protests in support of those excluded from the Government support scheme; I have campaigned alongside people protesting about the Government’s intransigence on contaminated blood; I have protested on the side of the paragraph 322(5) highly skilled migrants the Home Office sought to remove for no good reason; and I have joined regular demonstrations in my constituency in Glasgow, including in George Square, on the Buchanan Street steps and on Glasgow Green. Like everybody on the SNP Benches, and the many thousands of SNP members and independent supporters over generations, I have protested the radical and necessary aim of Scottish independence and breaking up this failing British state.
If the hon. Gentleman wants to tell me which protests he has joined, I would be glad to take his intervention, too.
I am more interested in asking whether the hon. Lady has ever considered supergluing herself to any particular item during her extensive campaigning and protesting. If so, does she believe that that is right thing to do, and if not, should not the legislation be in place?
People should have the right to protest in the way they see fit. This Government are running scared of protesters, who have had to take radical steps because the Government are not listening to their legitimate concerns.
I will make some progress.
When it came to the protests and the rest of the coronation, I was appalled and outraged, but not surprised. It is no coincidence that the Act got Royal Assent four days before the coronation—that is the state that we are in. When a self-declared royal super-fan can be arrested by accident, there is very little hope for anybody else. I am referring to Alice Chambers, who said that she tried desperately to tell the police that she was not with the group of Just Stop Oil protesters as she waited to watch the coronation on The Mall. She was repeatedly questioned over 13 hours, subject to physical searches, held in a cell and had her DNA, fingerprints and mugshot taken, before the Met finally realised that she was nothing but an innocent bystander. She said that it was not until two senior officers interviewed her at 7 pm, more than 10 hours after she was arrested, that they finally acknowledged they had made a mistake. As far as I am aware, she is yet to receive an apology.
The hon. Lady is making a powerful argument about the effect on innocent bystanders. The Public Order Act; the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022; voter ID—the list of anti-democratic laws passed by the Conservatives grows longer and longer, and there will be many innocent bystanders affected. The Tories have not won a general election in Wales for well over 150 years, and these laws therefore have no mandate from the people of Wales. My party wants to create a fairer justice system that truly serves our people. I am sure she agrees that if justice were devolved to Wales, as is the case in Scotland, many of these authoritarian new laws would never be able to be applied by this Government in Wales.
I absolutely agree with the point that the right hon. Lady is making on behalf of the people of Wales who are affected by this Act.
The point about innocent bystanders—
I want to finish this point, if that is okay with the hon. Member.
Ms Chambers, an Australian national, says that she has lived in the UK for seven years and was told she would face no further action by the police, but she does not yet know exactly what impact this will have on her right to live in the UK, because her arrest on suspicion of a criminal offence will remain on her record on the police national computer, and she is required to make an application supported by evidence to have the record removed. I ask the Minister, what happens to people in these circumstances? This could affect many people under question who would have the right to remain in the UK. I know of people who have gone through a red light or committed some other minor offence and have not been not allowed to stay, so somebody arrested under this Act could well find that that has a negative impact on their ability to stay in the UK.
I have a lot of time for the hon. Lady, and therefore I will share with her a guilty secret: 41 years ago, I was arrested for mounting a noisy counter-protest against a CND-sponsored demonstration against the Falklands taskforce that was on its way to the South Atlantic. The police recognised that they had gone a bit far. Nevertheless, when we did future rooftop counter-demonstrations, they would monitor the amount of noise we made and tell us, “You go above that noise, and we’ll confiscate your equipment and possibly arrest you. You keep within reasonable bounds, and you can carry on.” Does she accept that there are ways of protesting that do not involve disrupting everybody else but get the case across, and that is how it should be?
I am glad to find that somebody on the Government Benches has protested against something before. It must be true that you get more conservative as you get older. The difficulty with the point that the right hon. Gentleman is making is that, with reference to the offence of locking on, the Act talks about “serious disruption” to “two or more individuals”. That is a very, very low bar to set for disruption. When it comes to noisy protest, people are trying to make a noise—they are trying to draw attention to their cause. Restricting that in any way makes that incredibly difficult.
I would like to make some progress.
The point of protest is to attract attention to a cause, and the more difficult it is to attract attention to a cause, the more it undermines the very principle of that protest in the first place. One of my hon. Friends was talking earlier about somebody who was making a racket outside this building. That is not counted as a noisy protest, but it is quite disruptive. There are all kinds of things in life that we have to put up with and deal with. We have to be grown-ups and be able to deal with a noisy protest; that is quite fair.
My hon. Friend is making a wonderful speech showing the problems with the legislation. Does she share my concern that this Act is yet another attack on trade unions and the right to strike, because in their demonstrations about industrial unrest, they often make a bit of noise and gather together in large numbers? This is also yet another insidious attack on freedom of labour.
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. The people who were on PCS demonstrations in my constituency a few weeks ago were certainly making their voices loud and clear, and it is important that they do so. They were also having people honking their horns when they were going past—I do not know whether that falls within the ambit of the Act, but they were certainly getting support for their point.
I will come to the hon. Gentleman, but I have a train of thought going on.
I would like to just finish the point I am making to the Minister, and then I will let the hon. Gentleman come in on this point. I have laid out my past history of protest for a very good reason: I have previous on this. I have not been arrested at any of those demonstrations, but I am sure that my name is in a file somewhere—perhaps the Security Minister might tell me—for having protested outside Faslane, for example.
Perhaps it is now—who knows? My name may be on a file. The police may say, “This person has form for having protested before. She could be a risk; she could present a threat.” I am an SNP Member with the stated aim of wishing to break up the British state; some may consider that a threat. I am wearing a necklace today that says “Not my King”; had I been walking down The Mall at the coronation, perhaps that would have been cause for me to be arrested. Would the Minister consider that to be a threat? I have a belt on this dress; is that considered a locking-on device now? Can I tie myself with a very firm knot to a lamp post—would the Minister consider that a threat under the Act? If he would like to intervene on me now about all of those things I would be very interested to hear whether he would consider me a threat liable to be arrested under the Act.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for listing all of the items about her person, but if she looks at section 2 of the Act, she will see that subsection (1) requires there to be an intention. In order for her to have committed an offence, there would have to be an intention for her to lock on, and while I am sure she could use her belt in any number of inventive ways, I doubt that there would be an intention to lock on.
In relation to the point about industrial disputes and trade unions made in an intervention by one of the hon. Lady’s colleagues, I remind the House—as I did during the passage of the Act just a few weeks ago—that industrial disputes and trade union actions, strikes and so on are expressly excluded from the provisions of the Act.
I am very interested in what the Minister said about intention, because the Republic protesters who found themselves getting arrested had no intention—in fact, they had been negotiating in advance with the police on this issue. It was suggested that the string that they had to tie up their placards with was a locking-on device, despite the organisation having no history of using locking-on devices as part of their protest. If those people, who had no intention and no history of doing such things, ended up getting lifted by the police, I suggest that the Act has no reassurance to offer to anybody in any circumstance where they might be considered a risk.
I like the hon. Lady very much—we sit on the same Select Committee—but I am unsure of the point that she is making. When we talk about peaceful protest, we are talking about non-violent protest. If she can point to any wording in the Public Order Act that restricts the right to non-violent protest, I would welcome that, but I can tell her the answer: there is nothing. This debate is not about whether there are restrictions on peaceful protest, but about whether we agree on the specific restrictions that are in the Public Order Act, and also in other pieces of legislation. There are different pieces of legislation that address different types of behaviour—that is what criminal statute is about.
As the hon. Gentleman knows, we will be taking evidence on this issue in the Home Affairs Committee tomorrow from people who were arrested under this very legislation, who had no intention of being violent or anything of that kind. It will be interesting to hear from them what they say about the operation of the Act in practice.
One of the witnesses who will be giving evidence to the Home Affairs Committee tomorrow is Adam Wagner, a respected barrister. He said that the difference between the old law and this Act is that previously the touchstone for interference with the right to protest was when disruptive protest spilled over into a threat to public order and violence. Now, disruption is in and of itself defined in the criminal law as a threat to public order. That is an independent barrister giving an answer to the question asked by James Daly, is it not?
It certainly is. When we look at how the Act has operated in its first outing, we know that although it is working as the Government intend, it is not working as some people claim it is.
James Daly and the Minister at the Dispatch Box mentioned intentions, which would be fine if intentions could not be misread, deliberately or otherwise. The fact that they can leaves a serious weakness in the Act.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. When we talk about intentions, we are almost in the dystopian area of pre-crime, guessing what people’s intentions might be. With strings around placards or a cyclist walking along with a bicycle chain, it is difficult to establish those intentions. It is clear from the coronation weekend’s activities that the measure is insufficient. The Bill should never have been brought to Parliament in the first place, given that it was just a repackaging of the measures that were already rejected during the passage of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022. Rather than accepting the democratic will of Parliament, the Government reintroduced the provisions later in the Public Order Bill, now the Public Order Act 2023. It is clear to me that the Government are seeking to crack down on protesters and protest without looking at the very reasons for that protest. It is very much a knee-jerk reaction.
I come now to the position of His Majesty’s official Opposition, such as it is. The Leader of the Opposition, Keir Starmer, instead of saying that this Act should be repealed, said that we need to let it “bed in”. The shadow Foreign Secretary, Mr Lammy has said:
“We can’t come into office, picking through all the Conservative legislation and repealing it…It would take up so much parliamentary time.”
I am giving the official Opposition the opportunity today: here is some parliamentary time, and here is the opportunity to repeal the Act. Why will they not come forward and support us in the Lobby tonight?
The shadow public health Minister, Andrew Gwynne, told Sky News that the Opposition would
“look very carefully at this legislation”,
and the police would appear to have been “heavy-handed” in their approach during the coronation, but he refused to go as far as to commit to scrapping the Act. The Opposition are not opposing the restrictions on the right to protest, and their dithering is enabling it. They have said they are a Government in waiting, but today, on this piece of legislation, as with so many others, they are simply looking like gormless Tory sidekicks.
The Public Order Act 2023 was a petulant, vindictive, knee-jerk reaction from a UK Tory Government who are hellbent on undermining human rights and ignoring international legal obligations. It is a pattern of behaviour, and Scotland wants no part of it. The failure of Labour to stand up against this erosion of human rights and to commit to scrapping the Bill, along with the anti-trade union laws and the Illegal Migration Bill, will gain them no votes in Scotland. It will only reinforce the urgency of independence and of getting rid of this toxic Westminster Government and its successors once and for all.
It is a pleasure to appear here, speaking in this Opposition day debate. To start, I must say that I am a little mystified that the nationalists are bringing this motion before the House, given that, as has been suggested already, the vast majority of the Public Order Act 2023 does not even apply in Scotland. There is one tiny smidgen of the Act that does have effect in Scotland. It is concerned with applying historic provisions of the old Public Order Act 1986 on transport and military property in Scotland. I have in my hand a letter dated
I would love to know how the Minister defines a smidgen.
In this context—I can read out the letter—the smidgen is applying historic matters under part 2 of the Public Order Act 1986 concerning processions and assemblies. They provide powers to the British Transport Police and Ministry of Defence police in Scotland on transport and defence land that are already exercisable by Police Scotland. That is the smidgen, and it is a smidgen to which Keith Brown readily and happily gave his consent in the letter dated
The Minister is making much of the fact that this legislation does not apply in Scotland, but he knows fine well—this point has already been made clear today by my hon. Friend Alison Thewliss—that the Act affects people of Scotland who come here to protest against the great power that Westminster has over their lives in important areas.
People who come to London from France might be affected by these laws. Is she suggesting that Members of the French National Assembly should be voting? People might come from the United States of America and be subject to these laws. Should the United States Senate and House of Representatives be expressing a view on these matters?
I could go on, but I would much rather give way to the hon. Gentleman making what I am sure will be an insightful and interesting point.
Given that the right hon. Gentleman does not want the French, the Americans or anybody else to come and vote at Westminster, we have a simple solution that will end the Scots coming to vote at Westminster, thank you very much.
Well, then the hon. Member will have no say at all. Of course, in a referendum held in September 2014 the people of Scotland spoke very clearly and said they wanted to remain in the United Kingdom. I respect their wishes, and it is a shame that he does not.
Let me turn to the provisions of this Bill and the reasons why it was passed by both Houses of Parliament just a few weeks ago. The law-abiding majority are clear: they are sick of transport networks grinding to a halt and busy areas being shut down by deliberately disruptive protesters; they are sick of artworks being damaged; and they are sick of being unable to get their children to school, unable to get to hospital to have medical treatment, unable to get to work to earn a living, or unable to see their loved ones because of deliberately disruptive protests.
The Minister is very clearly making the point about why the majority of the public supported the Bill. Is this not the reason why Labour Members are not opposing the Act? Even they have realised that the majority of the public do not want their day-to-day lives ruined by a few who choose to sit in roads or glue themselves on to various objects, which just is not fair to people who want to get on with their lives.
My hon. Friend makes two very good points, both of which pre-empt what I was going to say, but let me come to the official Opposition. They obviously voted against the Bill on Third Reading and at various other stages during its passage, yet the Leader of the Opposition, just a week or two ago, said that he now did not favour its immediate repeal and wanted to see how it beds in. I do not know how the Opposition will vote today. It is of course entirely possible that there will be another U-turn, although I must say that two U-turns in three weeks is quite a lot even by the standards of the Leader of the Opposition, so we will have to see what they actually do.
On the wider point my hon. Friend makes, I completely agree. We on the Government side of the House of course accept that peaceful protest is a fundamental human right. We of course accept the article 10 and article 11 rights, and this Act is compliant with those obligations. However, when it comes to people who are not simply protesting, but deliberately and intentionally setting out to disrupt the lives of their fellow citizens in a way that is deliberate and planned—for example by gluing themselves to a road surface, dangling themselves from a gantry over the M25 or walking slowly down a busy road—they are not protesting, but deliberately disrupting the lives of their fellow citizens. We say that that is not fair and is not reasonable. We say that that goes too far, and I believe the British people agree with us. It sounds as though the Opposition may do so as well these days, but that seems to change from one week to the next.
Somebody has got to say it: how does the Minister respond to the fact that I as a woman am here as an MP in the House of Commons only because of people having undertaken very disruptive protests?
Of course, the suffragettes, at the time they were protesting, did not have the vote and were not represented in Parliament. These days, we have a universal franchise, and everybody over the age of 18 who is a citizen is entitled to vote and stand for Parliament in a way that the suffragettes could not. That is the fundamental difference between the suffragettes and adults in this country today. People who are deliberately disrupting the lives of citizens are seeking to achieve by disruption and direct action what they cannot achieve by argument and democratic election, and that is wrong.
I am immensely grateful to the Minister for giving way. Is it not true that every contemporary polity —I am speaking now of democratic countries—has some constraints on protest? A protest is limited where that protest becomes so violent, so extreme and so disruptive that it damages the lives of law-abiding people. The countries on the continent that SNP Members seem to revere in so many other ways certainly have those constraints, so the Government are doing nothing unusual, extreme or unreasonable—far from it.
My right hon. Friend is, as usual, absolutely right. The concept that the right to protest does not extend to disrupting other people is one that other countries accept, and indeed article 11.2 of the ECHR, a text Opposition Members hold in very high regard, expressly concedes on the rights to protest that
“the exercise of these rights” cannot exceed levels that are
“prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security or public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime”.
So the ECHR itself recognises that the law may impose constraints and restrictions on the right to freedom of assembly and association, or indeed the article 10 right to freedom of expression, in order for the prevention of crime,
“for the protection of health or morals” and so on and so forth. It is recognised that these are limited rights in the way my right hon. Friend has eloquently described.
I want to check that I heard the Minister correctly a few minutes ago when he talked about people walking slowly down streets being covered by this Act. This building is filled with long and narrow corridors, so if I am stuck behind somebody should I phone the police?
There are statutory definitions of what serious disruption constitutes. Slow walking is actually covered by section 12 of Public Order Act 1986 and is nothing to do with the Public Order Act 2023. In answer to the question, unless serious disruption is being caused, no, that would not be a matter for the police.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that this comes down to a very straightforward choice: those who believe people should be able to glue themselves to the middle of the M25, potentially causing fatalities, stopping people getting to hospital appointments or taking their exams and causing the utmost disruption to their lives, support the SNP position, while those who stand up for people being allowed to carry on with their everyday lives without interference support what the Government and my right hon. Friend are saying?
My hon. Friend puts it very well: the right to protest does not extend to the right to deliberately and intentionally disrupt the lives of fellow citizens by, for example, intentionally causing a 10-mile tailback on the M25. That is not reasonable, it is not proportionate, and it is quite right that we stop it.
I do not think anyone is disputing that articles 10 and 11 of the ECHR are qualified rights, but it is not just the SNP that takes the view that this Act goes beyond what is permissible under articles 10 and 11: the Joint Committee on Human Rights, a cross-party Committee that I chair, unanimously published a report saying we thought this Act went beyond what was acceptable under articles 10 and 11. So will the Minister acknowledge that this is not just an SNP view, and that it is a view held by a cross-party Committee of both Houses that this Act went too far and breached articles 10 and 11?
I understand that the hon. and learned Lady’s Committee reached that view; clearly the Government, informed by considered legal advice, took a different view. That is why on the front of the Bill when it was published there was a statement made under section 19(1)(a) of the Human Rights Act 1998 that the Government’s view—informed, as I have said, by legal analysis—is that it is compliant with the ECHR. That is particularly because, as the hon. and learned Lady acknowledges, articles 10 and 11 are qualified rights and they are qualified by, among other things, the right of the legislature and the Government to prevent “disorder or crime”. I put it to this House that causing a 10-mile tailback on the M25 does constitute disorder, and I would say we are entirely entitled to protect our fellow citizens from being prevented from getting to hospital or getting their children to school.
The Minister has just uttered the key argument I was hoping to hear from him, which is that even the right to protest is a qualified right, not an absolute right. I quote in support of that something I revere even more than the ECHR, John Stuart Mill’s “On Liberty”, which says:
“The only freedom which deserves the name is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it.”
That is where the absolute right is restricted to being a qualified right.
My right hon. Friend and John Stuart Mill, the famous libertarian philosopher, are absolutely right. The right to protest, and indeed other rights, should not be enforced or enjoyed at the expense of other people. I know that the protesters think that they have an important and strong case, but that does not confer on them the right to ruin other people’s lives. It is not that they do so incidentally or accidentally as an unintended corollary of their protest; they are deliberately, intentionally and by design setting out to ruin other people’s lives. That is what the Government seek to prevent, and that is what this Act of Parliament seeks to do.
This Act of Parliament received Royal Assent only a short time ago having been through both Houses of Parliament. I think there was about a year between the Bill’s introduction and the completion of its passage through both Houses. The Bill had extensive scrutiny in Committee and was subject to extended ping-pong. No one can say that it did not have extensive scrutiny. That is why it is extraordinary that the nationalists now seek to repeal an Act that received Royal Assent only a few weeks ago.
On the protests on the day of the coronation of His Majesty the King, does the Minister feel that the authorities overstepped the mark in their dealing with the protesters?
No, I do not. I grateful for the opportunity to talk about that in more detail. Of course, there was an urgent question on the topic last Tuesday, when we debated and discussed it at some length. Since the hon. Member asks about the coronation, let me turn to that, as it is prayed in aid frequently. The most recent information that I have is that a total of 70 arrests were ultimately made on the coronation day. As I understand it, only six out of 70 were made under the new Public Order Act 2023. The others—I will not read out all of them—included arrests for possession of class A drugs; a sexual offender in breach of a condition; 14 people arrested and bailed for breach of the peace; 32 people arrested for conspiracy to cause public nuisance, all of whom have been bailed; one person arrested and bailed on suspicion of sexual assault; and one person arrested for handling stolen goods. The list goes on.
So 70 arrests were made, but only six of those were under the powers in the new 2023 Act. Of course, arrests may be made on the basis of reasonable suspicion. Much has been made of the fact that people were subsequently released. The six Republic protesters were released, and no further action is being taken. It is entirely possible for someone to be arrested on the basis of reasonable suspicion but, on further inquiries being made, it may be that the threshold for charge or prosecution is not met. Of course, in that case, no further action will be taken.
As I said in response to the urgent question posed by Joanna Cherry last Tuesday, we need to keep in mind the context in which the coronation took place. In the 24 hours preceding the coronation, there was a lot of intelligence—specific intelligence—about several well developed and well organised plots to cause serious disruption, including deliberately causing the horses to stampede, throwing paint over the ceremonial procession and, separately, locking on to the ceremonial route. This was a huge policing operation, with 11,500 police deployed that day, policing an enormous crowd. Things were moving very quickly indeed. Given that, the police were doing a difficult job in difficult circumstances—it was the event of a generation and the eyes of the world were upon us—and I think they did act reasonably.
The Minister said a moment ago that only six people were arrested under the new Public Order Act and that they were the six Republic protesters with the luggage straps. When I asked my urgent question last week, we did not know about the Australian superfan who had had gone out to celebrate the coronation and was lifted on The Mall and held in prison all day. Will the Minister tell us on what basis that lady was arrested? I would be really interested to know, and I am sure that her solicitors will be as well.
No doubt. I think the information I have in front of me predates the release of the information the hon. and learned Lady is referring to, so I do not think I can answer her question. From the facts I have seen publicly reported, it would appear that subsequently, upon investigation, there was not a reasonable basis to detain the lady concerned. Obviously, at the time it occurred, it is likely that the officer had some reasonable basis, but upon further investigation they discovered there was nothing further to be done. Clearly, in policing—[Interruption.] Let me finish the point. Clearly, in policing an event with probably hundreds of thousands of people present, 11,500 officers present and a great deal of confusion on the ground, mistakes occasionally—unavoidably—get made. I suspect, by the way, that she was not arrested under the provisions of the new Act, but I do not know for sure, so I do not state that with any certainty. It is very easy, with the benefit of hindsight, to say what was right and what was wrong, but given the context and the circumstances of the day—a huge event, with the eyes of the world upon us and a very threatening intelligence picture—I do not think it is reasonable to be unduly critical.
I am extremely grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way again. I do not, unlike my right hon. Friend Sir Julian Lewis, revere the European charter, the Human Rights Act or even John Stuart Mill.
I am pleased to hear that. But I do revere Edmund Burke. It was Burke who said:
“Nothing turns out to be so oppressive and unjust as a feeble government.”
So when the Government act in anything but a feeble way, they are acting justly and rightly in defence of law-abiding, decent patriotic people. [Interruption.] I see Joanna Cherry chuntering. Burke also said, of course, that liberty cannot exist in the absence of morality. When the Government act to do what is right and just, they deserve credit, praise and congratulations. They have mine.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his words of support and for quoting that great thinker, Edmund Burke. It is necessary that the Government and Parliament pass laws, and that the police implement those laws, in defence of peaceful protest of course, but also in defence of law-abiding members of the public who want to go about their day-to-day business.
Is the Minister not struck by the irony that if anything had gone wrong on that day, the same people would be in this Chamber blaming the Government for not taking the appropriate steps to protect the public and the historic event? Is it not the case that, time and again, those on the Opposition Benches are on the side of the people who want to disrupt hard-working, peaceful people going to work and enjoying themselves in their day-to-day lives?
On my hon. Friend’s first point, hindsight is something we get quite a lot of from the Opposition these days. I agree that the Government are on the side of law-abiding citizens who want to go about their day-to-day business. That is why the Act was constructed in the way it was and why it was passed after great deliberation by both Houses of Parliament. I see my right hon. Friend Kit Malthouse is in his place. I think he had a considerable hand in formulating the Bill, so I take the opportunity to thank him and congratulate him on his work.
The Public Order Act 2023 was passed just a few weeks ago and it received Royal Assent even more recently. It would be absurd to attempt to repeal a piece of legislation so soon and there are no plans at all to do so. It would appear that even Captain Hindsight, the Leader of the Opposition, can see that.
Here we are again. I have made more than 20 speeches on public order legislation over the last two years, through the passage of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill and the recently passed Public Order Bill. No MP has debated public order more times than me. Ministers are here one day and gone the next, as always with this ever-revolving door of weak government, but I have been here and I am weary of a Government who have refused to listen to hon. Members on their own side, to hon. Members on the Opposition Benches, to the public and to many current and former police officers. Instead, they have chosen headlines over common sense, party interest over freedom, and strict limitations over liberty.
Then again, perhaps none of that is surprising given the extraordinary rhetoric coming out of the National Conservatism conference over the last couple of days. Even the readers of “ConservativeHome” have described it as utter nonsense. Mr Rees-Mogg, astonishingly, admitted to his party’s own gerrymandering through voter ID at elections. The Government appear to be fighting democracy, whether on voter ID or unnecessary restrictions on the right to protest. We are all watching on as the Conservative party loses its way in real time.
Our essential case on public order has always been this: in his review of protest powers, the inspector, Matt Parr, called for a minor reset in the balance between police powers and protester powers. That followed protests that involved people attaching themselves to infrastructure and gluing themselves to roads. Of course, protesters must not grind our infrastructure to a halt or put themselves or others in danger by gluing themselves to motorways. The police must take swift and robust action when people break the law. The legal system must respond and ensure there is appropriate punishment.
We did not disagree that a minor reset might be required. To that end, we suggested new powers to make it easier to take out injunctions, which the Government rejected. We tabled amendments that aimed to give the police better training, as the inspector recommended, better understanding of the law and a more sophisticated response to long protests. We worked to minimise the negative impact of serious disruption prevention orders after our efforts to remove them entirely did not pass.
We won important votes in this place, such as to amend the Public Order Bill so that buffer zones of 150 metres around abortion clinics are now law. That is a vital step forward that protects those going through a potentially traumatic experience from harassment, unlike in Scotland where the SNP is failing to make that a priority, and recently disbanded its own Government working group on the issue. Perhaps women in Scotland might benefit if it focused less on political stunts and more on using its actual powers.
We put forward measures in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill on vaccine clinics to ensure that people could not be targeted by harassment and intimidation. We supported new protections introduced into the Public Order Bill in the House of Lords for journalists reporting on protests, because a free press is a hallmark of a democratic society, as is the right to protest.
I support a lot of the items on the list of measures the hon. Lady has read out. Would she be prepared to add one more? Although protesters have a right to have their voice heard, that does not involve a right to make a huge amount of noise at enormously high volume, incessantly over substantial periods in the public space, any more than I would have a right to shout her down in this House if she had not given way to me.
We have debated at great length the right balance—when protest becomes too much and against the law, and when it does not. When people are shouting, as they do all the time in Parliament Square, we find it annoying, but it is their right to make noise, so long as they are not infringing people’s rights. We debated that endlessly during the passage of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill.
Considering the scope and low bar of most of the powers in the Public Order Act, reporting on their potential misuse or wrong application is even more important. We set out again and again the many laws that already exist to ensure that the police can act: obstruction of a highway, criminal damage, conspiracy to cause criminal damage, trespass, aggravated trespass, public nuisance, conspiracy to cause public nuisance, breach of the peace, and intention to prevent another person from going about his lawful business.
We looked carefully at all the measures the Government suggested. Would they solve the problem that they were introduced to fix? In the majority of cases, the answer was no. It was not the minor reset called for by His Majesty’s inspectorate, but a root and branch upheaval—a serious disruption to our protest laws. We voted against the Public Order Bill again and again. We suggested many amendments, we supported Lords amendments and we agreed with hon. Members on all sides of the House, but still the Government forced their measures through.
Yesterday, a former Cabinet Minister told the Tory fringe that
“the surrender to the blob risks exposing the Government to ridicule.”
He was perhaps missing the point. The Government have not succumbed to a blob; the Government are the blob. It is the Government who are taking away our freedom, circumventing democracy by passing laws through secondary legislation—as they did just before the coronation—and threatening to lock people up for having string in their bags.
We expect poor behaviour from the Government, but I am disappointed with the SNP. During the passage of the Bill, SNP Members made some principled arguments and engaged seriously with its content, but today is nothing more than a political stunt. SNP Members know full well that the Public Order Act does not apply in large part to Scotland. As the Minister said, the SNP and the Scottish Parliament passed a legislative consent motion on the Public Order Bill agreeing to the small number of parts that affect Scotland.
SNP Members know that they do not have the numbers to repeal or amend this legislation next week. It is just a stunt. Understandably, SNP Members are on a mission to distract from the spectacle of police digging up the former First Minister’s lawn, the talk of burner phones and clandestine camper vans, and the outrage of senior party figures being arrested. But we will not dignify this stunt with our support.
What would Labour do with this mess? We will not introduce legislation for the sake of it and ignore the real problems, like this Government have done. We would do three things. Our first priority would be to make our streets safe again: cut knife crime, halve violence against women and girls, and put 13,000 police back on our streets. That will be the golden thread running through everything we do.
Secondly, we will have to untangle the mess the Government have made, look at the raft of unnecessary legislation this Government have brought in, and work with the police to make sure that that delicate balance between people and the police is maintained. We will want to change suspicionless stop and search, where anyone can be stopped for any reason just because a protest could be happening nearby, and intention to lock on, where anyone with a bicycle lock, a ball of string or luggage straps can be arrested just because a protest could be happening nearby, as happened at the coronation. We will look at serious disruption prevention orders, where someone can have seriously restricted conditions imposed on them before they commit any offence at all, which is the same way the Government treat violent criminals and terrorists. We will want to keep buffer zones around abortion clinics, which the Government resisted for years, and the new measures to protect journalists.
Thirdly and finally, our approach to the police will not be the hands-off, push-blame-out and take-no-leadership approach we see under the Tories, who cut 20,000 police and were surprised when the arrest rate plummeted. We will have an active Home Office that enables our police to do their jobs to the highest standards, with no more excuses.
There is a careful balance between the right for people to protest and gather, and the right of others to go about their daily business. It is paramount that we protect public infrastructure, our national life and our communities from serious disruption, just as it is paramount that we protect the freedom to protest.
The coronation of King Charles III, which I was privileged to attend, involved the largest police effort ever undertaken, and I pay tribute to the police officers who ensured that so many people were able to safely enjoy such a historic occasion. However, there were problems with a handful of people being arrested under the new law and held for hours, who had been trying to protest or even trying to attend the coronation. We had warned the Government again and again that their measures were too broad, and it would seem we were right.
Some protests go too far—I make no apologies for saying that. To see a painting splattered with paint: too far. To see ambulances blocked on roads: too far. The Labour party has always stood with the people of this country in saying that such disruptive activities are unacceptable. It is our job as legislators to come up with proposals that solve problems, not create them.
It is also our job to be serious about governing and not to throw political stunts. We refuse to be drawn into the political games of two parties that are paralysed by crises of their own making. On every single one of the 20 or more occasions that I have stood in the Chamber to debate these Bills, Labour has demonstrated our serious approach to legislation. We do not take our responsibilities as the Opposition lightly, and we will not take our responsibilities lightly in government.
Order. I do not propose to put a time limit on speeches, but I ask hon. Members to recognise that this is an Opposition day debate. It is up to Opposition Members to decide who speaks and for how long.
It is a pleasure to speak in the debate, Mr Deputy Speaker.
It is very difficult to strike a balance between respecting peaceful protest, which of course is a cornerstone of our democracy, and occasionally placing a limit on it when the action of the protesters goes too far, causes immense disruption to the law-abiding majority who are just going about their business, and, on certain occasions, may cause a risk to people’s lives: we have seen many occasions when ambulances have been blocked.
I will not overstate the disruption that was caused. There was not a massive amount of disruption. A number of different people locally made it clear before the go-slow march that it would not be appreciated, and I think that by and large the police should be commended for taking a reasonably robust line—it was perhaps not quite as robust as I would have liked, but it was reasonably robust. Ultimately, it still should not have happened. We still should not have a situation where Crown Street, one of the business streets in Ipswich, on a Saturday, a match day, is basically closed off.
Under the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022, the police had the ability to go further than they did. The Public Order Act gives them a much firmer steer than the provisions before the Act. Ultimately, however, we still had a degree of disruption caused that should not have been caused. We also had various activists going around making various demands. I am sorry, but a protest is about expressing your views strongly. It is not about making demands and saying, “We are going to do this and we are going to cause untold disruption to the vast majority of people until we get what we want.”
We can add to that another way in which my constituents have been negatively impacted. Many of the most disruptive protests have been to do with oil refineries in Essex and the eastern region. That has of course pulled policing resources from Suffolk. The police have had to go out there and cover some of the Just Stop Oil protests on the M25 as well. At a time when we have a problem with antisocial behaviour and crime in Ipswich town centre, police officers who could be on the beat in the town centre, making my constituents safer and making them feel safer, are being drawn elsewhere because of some of these reckless, disruptive protests.
Coronation day was, of course, a great national spectacle of profound importance to our country, a once-in-a-lifetime thing for most of us, and the world’s eyes were on us. Again, I think the police should be commended for the role that they played. They had to make incredibly high-pressure decisions: they had to make judgment calls in moments when they did not have much time to think about it. We had a fantastic event that passed with great fanfare. Yes, the police made decisions to arrest a number of people, the vast majority of whom probably deserved to be arrested. A small number, it turns out, did not, and the police have apologised for that. But ultimately we had a very successful day, and I think that the vast majority of my constituents backed the way the police handled it. They did it properly and got the balance right between allowing peaceful protest and preventing action that could have caused significant danger. We heard examples of rape alarms being set off, which could have disturbed horses, with all the security concerns associated with that. I myself stood on Whitehall and saw opposite two different groups of protesters holding up “Not My King” signs. I profoundly disagreed with their message, but it is their right to express that and they did express it. The idea that there were not significant numbers of people protesting against the monarchy that weekend is ridiculous. There were: I saw them and many others saw them as well.
I thank my very good friend for allowing me to intervene. I think that this matter is all about fairness. It is fair that people are allowed to protest, but it is equally fair that people’s lives should not be seriously disrupted by those protests. Human rights, on both sides, are what this Act is about.
I agree with my right hon. Friend. It is about a balancing act. I am not concerned about the Act: it does a good job in getting the balance right. It still allows peaceful protest, but it draws a sharp line. Actually, it was explicitly asked for by the police. The Labour party says that it respects and supports the police: well, the police asked for the Act. They said they wanted more clarity and they have got it through the Act, and that is to be welcomed.
I find this slightly curious. It is interesting watching the dynamic at play between the Scottish National party and the Opposition. An interesting dynamic seems to be emerging here; a bit of tension between the two parties. It is intriguing that this was selected by the SNP as the subject of the motion today. It is also intriguing that virtually no Labour MPs are present. It is interesting that the Labour party explains this away as “Oh, this is all the SNP playing games and we’re bigger than this.” That is really not the case. The reason no Labour MPs are here is that they find it profoundly awkward. There is a huge tension between two different groups that they look to appeal to. The first is voters in Scotland who may be torn between the SNP and Labour, who might be very much on the side of protesters. On the other hand, Labour MPs might deep down know that the vast majority of the public—
I shall not be giving way—[Interruption.] Have I touched a nerve? It seems so. I apologise for that. It does seem as though there is a bit of a balancing act going on in the Labour party, and deep down they know—
Order. The hon. Gentleman is entirely within his right not to give way, but I did suggest a self-denying ordinance on the length of speeches, so I trust he will be bringing his remarks to a conclusion.
I will be concluding my speech. I have further points that I would like to make. I will take an intervention at a time of my own choosing.
Ultimately, there is a tension between the Labour party looking to appeal to voters north of the border, who may well sympathise with extremely reckless protests, and those south of the border. I suspect that Labour Members know deep down that the majority of the public—
To be very clear, we are very interested in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, not just those north of the border.
I am not really sure what the point was there. I have said that there is a tension in the Labour party: we have no such tension on this side of the House. And we do not have a problem with sitting on fences. I sat through the Public Bill Committee for the Act. I saw the Labour party vote against every single aspect of it and every aspect of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill.
I will not be giving way anymore.
I also saw locally that the Just Stop Oil activists, once they had finished their protests, went and joined another protest that was attended by the Labour parliamentary candidate and half the Labour council, which was in favour of illegal immigrants being in the local hotel. It is clear what side of the fence the Labour party falls on.
I will bring my remarks to a close, even though we have had much longer speeches from Members on the other side of the House. However, I think I have got pretty close—
It is clear that I have touched a nerve here. I find the interplay between the SNP and the Labour party quite remarkable. The reality is that the Labour party has made it clear time and again that they are not on the side of the law-abiding majority looking to get to work and to go about their business—
You are on the side of reckless protesters who, time and again, want to grind our settlements to a halt. It is absolutely clear. I will draw my remarks to a close, but will watch with interest the dynamic and interplay between the Labour party and the SNP. We will continue to see the Labour party evolve over the coming weeks.
I should have said earlier that I intend to start to call the Front Benchers at twenty to 7. That should give Members an indication of how long they have.
The last 12 months have seen an unprecedented attack on the right to protest, not just with the Public Order Act but with part 3 of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act, which preceded it. The right to protest is part of the right to freedom of expression. In the travaux préparatoires for the European convention on human rights, freedom of expression was described as
“the touchstone of all freedoms”.
That is because it is essential for the fulfilment of all our other rights and it is also an essential underpinning of any democracy. The European Court of Human Rights has said that freedom of expression constitutes one of the “essential foundations” of a democratic society:
“it is applicable not only to ‘information’ or ‘ideas’ that are favourably received or regarded as inoffensive or as a matter of indifference, but also to those that offend, shock or disturb”.
That is the price of freedom of expression, and a democracy that loses sight of that is in trouble.
Unfortunately, across the United Kingdom, we are allowing a degree of authoritarianism to creep into our public life. We have even recently seen the police turning up at the door of members of the public to check their thinking, which is a serious attack on freedom of expression. When the police interfere with the right to protest, it is a similarly serious attack on freedom of expression.
I know Conservative Members purport to care very deeply about freedom of speech, and I am on record as saying that I think the left needs to do more to speak up for freedom of speech, but I am afraid to say I detect a degree of hypocrisy that a party that says it wants to strengthen protections for freedom of speech in the now defunct Bill of Rights and in the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Act 2023 has passed legislation that is a fundamental attack on the right to protest, which is another crucial aspect of freedom of expression.
I have huge respect for the hon. and learned Lady, who has been courageous in expressing her views on gender, with which I happen to agree. It is disgraceful that she has been cancelled and had her right to free speech infringed in many ways, but I put it to her that she is talking about people’s right to say what they want to say, rather than how they go about protesting, which is what the Public Order Act is about. She has every right to say what she wants to say, but does she have the right, for example, to use huge amplifiers in a public space for hours on end so that nobody can hear themselves think? The Act is not about content; it is about protests that infringe the right of others to go about their normal life.
As others have said, it is a question of balance. I think it was a Conservative Back Bencher who, during one of our many debates over the past year on the right to protest, listed all the laws that already applied in England and Wales and the huge amount of powers the police already had to deal with disruptive protests prior to the passage of the Public Order Act and part 3 of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act. On one level, we could say this legislation is quite performative, because the police could already use existing laws, but on another level it is much more than performative because, as we saw at the coronation, it could have a chilling effect on the right to protest.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for the generous things he said about me, and I am happy to tell him that I have been uncancelled as a result of taking legal advice. For women like me who are being cancelled because we do not agree with self-identification of sex without any safeguards, it is not just a question of our right to freedom of speech; it is also a question of our right under the Equality Act 2010 not to be discriminated against because of the philosophical beliefs we hold, which an appeal court has said are worthy of respect in a democratic society.
I digress, because the point I want to make is that the right to protest is an aspect of freedom of expression. Conservative Members say they care about freedom of expression when it comes to freedom of speech in the now defunct Bill of Rights and in the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Act, but they seem to care about it rather less when it comes to their crackdown on the right to protest.
Both those Acts and the Public Order Act, which we want to see repealed, apply only in England and Wales, but as my hon. Friend Alison Thewliss ably explained, in her usual way, many Scots come to London because, unfortunately, the seat of power is still at Westminster and a lot of legislation is passed in Westminster on matters about which Scots feel very strongly, such as nuclear weapons, so we often come here to protest. It also matters what happens to foreigners who come to London. What happened to that Australian lady who was lifted by the police and kept in jail all day on the day of the coronation was a disgrace. I hope she has taken legal advice, because she ought to be able to get hefty damages for wrongful arrest. I can just about understand why the police might have made a mistake, but I do not understand why they did not realise their mistake sooner and why that poor woman was kept in the cells for hours on end. There is a suspicion that political pressure was on the police to crack down, and I will come to that in a moment.
At the time of the death of Her late Majesty Queen Elizabeth, there were some protests when the new King was proclaimed. Many of us were concerned about heavy-handed arrests of people, both north and south of the border, who were protesting in the name of republicanism, anti-imperialism or disapproval of the behaviour of a certain member of the royal family. Some might question whether it was the appropriate time to do that, after the death of the Queen, but the right to protest is fundamental and should be facilitated. The fact that it might upset some people does not mean it should not be allowed to happen. After what happened in the aftermath of the Queen’s death, many of us warned that in future greater care would need to be taken by the police to facilitate the right to protest, particularly during the coronation. What is so awful about what happened to those six republican protesters lifted because of their luggage straps, under the locking-on provisions of the 2023 Act, is that they had gone to incredible lengths to discuss in advance with the police the nature and extent of the protests they wanted to make. They were then lifted at the start of the day and, again, held until after 11 o’clock at night. I do not understand why they had to be held for so long when a mistake had been made.
Instead of looking at the necessity of facilitating protest, what happened prior to the coronation was that parts of this Act were rushed into force with incredible haste and they appear to have been used to crack down on protesters who had gone to considerable lengths to try to clear their actions in advance with the police. As I said, there is a suspicion that political pressure was brought to bear on the police. If that was to have happened in a democracy, it would be scandalous. It is not me making this accusation, because a senior source in the Metropolitan police said that “pressure” had come from above and Sir Peter Fahy, the former chief constable of Greater Manchester police, said on Radio 4’s “Today” programme that what happened with the wrongful arrests at the coronation has to be seen in the “context” of media, political and public pressure on the police. He referred to what he called
“some pretty direct and personal feedback” brought to bear on Sir Mark Rowley before the Home Affairs Committee on
I have no doubt that the Government will deny until they are blue in the face that any political pressure was ever put on the Met, but does my hon. and learned Friend agree that the deliberate timing of the rushed passage of the Bill through its final stages could not have done other than send a clear message to the Met that it was expected that that legislation was to be vigorously enforced on coronation day, the first major day of protests after it was put in place? Is it not the case that the Met commissioner’s statement could only have been intended to make every police officer on duty that day feel that they were under pressure to deliver the goods?
That very much seems to be the case.
As my hon. Friend Alison Thewliss said, the Home Affairs Committee will be conducting an inquiry on this tomorrow and hearing evidence. I am pleased that both the Chair of the Justice Committee and myself, as Chair of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, have been asked to join in that inquiry. I am very much looking forward to getting to the bottom of the question of whether political pressure was brought to bear, because I want to be clear: it would be absolutely unacceptable if political pressure had been brought to bear on the police. That sort of thing should not be happening in a democracy.
I will wind up in a minute. I have been speaking so far in a personal capacity, but, as Chair of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, I wish to point to our legislative scrutiny of the Public Order Act and of part 3 of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill. The Joint Committee is a cross-party Committee of six MPs and six peers—Tory, Labour, Liberal Democrat, SNP and Cross-Benchers. We produced two unanimous reports saying that both Bills, as they were then, went too far in cracking down on the right to protest and did not get the balance right under articles 10 and 11 of the European Court of Human Rights.
I hesitate to tangle with the hon. and learned Lady on matters of law, but, given all that she has said, would she also support the repeal in Scotland of what some might say are even more draconian measures that surround protests? For example, protesters have by law to give 28 days’ notice to the police if there is to be a protest. The offence of malicious mischief has been used against Just Stop the Oil protesters, which has an unlimited fine and unlimited prison sentence. In 2021, the Scottish Government applied for restrictions to be placed on protests around the Scottish Parliament building where we have seen many arrests and, indeed, people banned for long periods for protesting. I just wondered whether her Committee or, indeed, she had a view on those matters.
My Committee’s job is to scrutinise what happens in this Parliament, not what happens at Holyrood. However, I want to correct the right hon. Gentleman. It was not the Scottish Government who asked for powers to restrict protests outside Holyrood; it was the corporate body of the Scottish Parliament that asked for those powers, and I am on the record as having criticised that, so I am consistent in my position here.
I wish to go back to what the Joint Committee on Human Rights said about getting the balance right under articles 10 and 11. We said:
“The current rhetoric around protest tends to downplay the importance of the right to…protest” and instead focuses on discussions about balancing the rights of protesters against the rights of members of the public. We saw two problems with that. First, it often leads to the right to protest being given insufficient weight in the balancing compared with the rights of the public. Given that the right to protest is protected by the convention, it should be facilitated by the state so far as possible.
The second problem with this balancing is that it automatically assumes the rights of protesters are inevitably in conflict with the public interest. But that is not the case, because while protests may cause inconvenience, they are also fundamental in a democratic society to facilitate debate and discussions on contentious issues, and that in itself is of value to the public generally. We reminded the Government of the state’s duty to facilitate protest, a positive duty, and the police’s negative duty not to interfere disproportionately with protest.
I support the repeal of the Public Order Act because I believe, and a cross-party Committee that I chair supports me in that view, that it went too far, that it breaches articles 10 and 11 of the ECHR and also that there is plenty of existing legislation that the police have at their disposal to deal with disruptive protests that spill over into violence or become, in a sense, out of control. Therefore, this Act is unnecessary. I think that it was performative and that it will have a chilling effect on the right to protest in England and Wales, which is deeply regrettable.
It is an honour to follow the hon. and learned Lady, for whom I have a great deal of respect. I am constantly astonished by Members in this House who make claims based on no evidence whatsoever. This idea of political pressure is a very good left-wing slogan, but there is no evidence whatsoever behind it. If the best witness for that is Sir Peter Fahy, I need to spend some time with the hon. and learned Lady telling her what a disastrous chief constable he was for Greater Manchester and for my area. That would be a lengthy conversation. If he is the advocate for political pressure and that is it, then, clearly, there is no evidence.
The other thing that Members in this House seem constantly able to do, even though they were not witness to anything that happened on coronation day, is to speak with absolute authority, as alleged witnesses to what was going on. Not one person in this House saw the circumstances that led to the arrest of those six people. Yet hon. Members, especially on the Opposition Benches, seem to be imagining that they were there.
The reason the police exist and they enforce legislation is that it is for the police to investigate and the courts to judge. It is not for politicians to involve themselves and to make statements on the basis of information and evidence that they do not have. Not one Opposition Member was witness to what happened on coronation day.
Well, if the hon. Lady was a witness to those six arrests, I look forward to hearing from her.
Obviously I was not a witness to those six arrests; I was in the abbey—with the Commissioner, as it happens. I just wanted to point out that we make laws in this place that affect what our police do. That is our fundamental job, and our argument all along has been that the laws passed here have put the police in a very difficult situation, as we saw, which led to the Met’s having to apologise for what happened in that very small number of cases—the vast majority of cases were absolutely fine, but in that small number of cases there was a problem, and the police have admitted that.
I think it is ludicrous that the police apologised. Apologised for what? As the Minister said, the police set out a statement on the circumstances of what they said had occurred on the day. It was perfectly lawful—[Interruption.] The hon. Lady raises her arm, but the one thing we know from the police perspective is that the police’s position was that the arrests were lawful. The matters were then investigated and, like many other applications or incidents, the people arrested were released without charge, because a decision was taken—with the Crown Prosecution Service, I am sure—that intent could not be proven.
There is literally nothing unlawful about that. The police should not have apologised. It was a ridiculous thing to do, because it plays into exactly what we are seeing here: the left-wing media hysteria that can be whipped up in circumstances that are completely legal.
I do not think it was political pressure that led to the arrests; it was following an Act of Parliament that we had just passed. The police were acting on that Act of Parliament, and they were doing so to the best of their ability.
That is absolutely correct. In terms of how statute is drafted, I do not know what the Opposition want. If, for each criminal offence on the statute book, they want an absolute definition to cover every single circumstance that the police ever face, we will have the longest Acts ever to appear in this place.
The Conservatives have confidence in our police and our prosecuting authorities to use the discretion that this Parliament gives them to make correct decisions. If they do not make the correct decisions, those matters are tested in court and, as has been said, if there is an unlawful arrest, there is a legal process to deal with that. The fact that we are arguing about that here is utterly bizarre to me.
Does my hon. Friend find it curious that the Labour contribution to this debate seems to be for shadow Ministers to heckle speeches from Conservatives and not to offer any speeches of their own? Can he think why that may be the case?
I enjoy being heckled by those on the Front Bench, so I will take that.
I think we have got to the heart of the SNP argument. Alison Thewliss said she believed people should be able to protest in any way they want. Now if we take that argument to its end, it means that if someone glues themselves to the middle of the M62 or the M6 in my area, causing untold disruption and having a huge impact on people’s lives, there is no problem in respect of that.
There always has to be a restriction on the right to protest, compared with its impact on others. Why should Republic turn up to a coronation, where hundreds of thousands of our fellow citizens are celebrating, and find it strange the police are there and may well have concerns about behaviours that are going on, on the basis of intelligence that they have received? That is the job of the police. That is what happens in those circumstances.
Surely it is a matter of context, even within the parameters of a single event such as the coronation. For example, a certain measure of vocal protest might be permissible out in the open air, but if someone had somehow got into the abbey itself while the coronation was in progress, and stood up and started shouting loudly that they disagreed with it, I would be very surprised if anyone on the Opposition Benches said that that person should be allowed to continue ad nauseam, irrespective of the offence and the disruption caused to everyone else.
My right hon. Friend makes the point. Sometimes I think I am listening to a fantasy world in here. Effectively, what the Opposition are saying is that they would allow anybody to play music at any level for any length of time as long as they had the morality of the argument on their side. The fact that it would cause disruption and drive our fellow citizens demented does not matter. Anything that is done, as long as it is morally acceptable to the left, is justifiable. If protesters were arrested in respect of a Brexit demonstration, or a demonstration by someone on the right, none of them would stand up for that. It is the left-wing playlist.
We heard from Alison Thewliss. She went through the alphabet of the greatest hits of left-wing protests—all of them. That is what it is about. It is about undermining the police’s ability to control protest on the left because the left discovered, through middle-class, self-indulgent narcissists in organisations such as Just Stop Oil, what they could do. They saw a way around things: “We will find the part of the law where we can get away with things. And what will we do? We will start gluing ourselves to motorways. We will start indulging in behaviour that is incredibly difficult for the police to police with the powers that they have.”
They saw that gap in the market for left-wing protests: “We can do this. We can cause as much disruption to people as possible. We don’t care, because we’re on the left; we’re on the side of the angels. We don’t care about whether people can get to school; we don’t care about whether people can get to their exams; we don’t care about whether people can get to hospital, because it doesn’t matter. Because our self-appointed morality means everything. That is it. It means everything.”
I think perhaps the hon. Gentleman has gone in the wrong direction. He means to be at the National Conservatism conference rather than in this debate.
I know that you want to hear more of this speech, Mr Deputy Speaker, so let us get back to the proposal before this Parliament from a party that the legislation essentially does not affect. It seems odd that a party that has ruined the education system in Scotland and done various other such things does not want to talk about some of those fundamental issues for their constituents, but wants to talk about things that affect English constituents. I am glad in one sense, because it is at least an acceptance from SNP Members that we are one country—one United Kingdom—and that these matters should be important to us all. The Unionist is coming out in them all.
We are talking here about repeal. We are using up time in this place to debate the repeal of an Act that has been in place for, what, two or three weeks? By any measure of ludicrous debates, that is stretching it to the limit. What are we talking about within the Act that is so appalling, Mr Gale?
Order. It is a matter of relatively small consequence to me, but although Mr Gale is the name I was born with, for the purposes of this debate I am Mr Deputy Speaker.
I apologise, Mr Deputy Speaker.
I wonder whether our constituents think that going equipped to lock on—with apparatus to lock oneself to a motorway or something else to cause untold disruption —is an outrageous act. Well, of course they do. They think that that should be on the statute book, and that the police should have powers to enforce and take action against people who behave in that way.
Section 6 of the Act covers offences regarding the obstruction of major transport infrastructure. Well, let us go out and punt for anybody, anywhere who thinks that it is wrong to put in place and give police extra powers to ensure that people are not causing obstructions and putting themselves and other members of the public in harm’s way. Who on earth could object to that? Section 7 of the Act is on interference with national infrastructure. What does the right to peaceful protest have to do with someone sticking themselves to the middle of a motorway or any other transport infrastructure? It is not about that.
The Government should be immensely proud of this legislation, because not only does it respond to public concern, but it is a common-sense measure to address behaviours that were causing grave concern to people in my constituency and throughout the country. We can never be in a position where we allow the outrage of the left to overcome the rights of our fellow citizens in this country to get on with their lives in a peaceful and appropriate way. This is a good piece of legislation. There is not one shred of evidence to back up what those on the Opposition Benches are saying. Most importantly, the Act preserves the right to peaceful protest, and anybody who says anything to the contrary is clearly incorrect.
On the afternoon of
Less than a mile away, at a different venue, there were people gathered to celebrate the coronation of King Charles III—a slightly smaller number, I have to say, but I am sure that they were just as passionate and just as purposeful. Both events were policed discreetly and minimally, and both events passed off without incident. They allowed people in Edinburgh to express conflicting opinions on what was undoubtedly the biggest historical event of that day and possibly of this year. That is as it should be, but I fear that if the main provisions of the Public Order Act had been in force in Scotland, events might have unfurled rather differently on that day.
Let me be clear why we are concerned about this. We have heard ill-informed opinions expressed from the Government Benches suggesting that there is something untoward about the SNP seeking to repeal a piece of legislation most of which does not actually apply in Scotland. I have the privilege of representing part of our capital city, Edinburgh—an area full of rich and active communities with a lot of engaged citizens who quite often wish to protest about injustices they see around them. As colleagues have said, many of the decisions about those things are made here in this Parliament, so when there is a protest about whether we should be part of the European Union, whether we should be arming ourselves with new weapons of mass destruction or whether we should be invading foreign countries, we can expect busloads of my constituents to come to this city and attend. It concerns me—indeed, it is unacceptable to me—that my constituents have less protection of their right of expression once they cross the border than they have when they are in Scotland. That is why I want this piece of legislation repealed.
James Daly asked for evidence. The evidence I have to back up my argument is what happened on that same day on the streets of this city, less than a mile from this Chamber. At 7 o’clock in the morning, Graham Smith, the chief executive of the organisation Republic, and five other members of his organising team were arrested by the police. They were arrested on the suspected charge of going equipped under the new Public Order Act. It was 7 o’clock in the morning. I know Graham Smith. He is a man of the utmost seriousness, sincerity and integrity. There is no way that he would be associated with anything other than making a peaceful protest, and his arrest at 7 o’clock in the morning—before people had even come to the city centre—was not done in order to prevent harm being caused to others. It was not done because there was a threat to disrupt the coronation festivities. It was done, I believe, because there are people within Government and within the Metropolitan police who thought it might be embarrassing to the new King and the palace authorities for the demonstration to be successful, and wanted to try to disrupt that protest by removing its capacity—by taking away its key organisers and holding them in detention for 16 hours.
The truth is that the embarrassment that was caused that day was not to the King, but to this Government and the British state, because to all the rest of the world watching on, it looked as if a Government who try to stand up for dissidents in Moscow, Beijing or elsewhere were locking up dissidents on the streets of their own country. Nothing undermines an argument more than the charge of hypocrisy against those who advocate for it. That is why I believe those arrests and the use of the Public Order Act to make them have seriously tarnished the reputation of the United Kingdom as a global defender of human rights around the world.
It was the Public Order Act that was used, and there are provisions in that Act—new offences such as going equipped or conspiracy to order, or the new provisions for serious disruption prevention orders. Those are specific things in specific sections of the Act, but there is a much more insidious and sinister aspect to this issue, which is in the politics and the psychology around the legislation and its introduction. Two things are happening: the first is that law enforcement agencies are being given additional confidence, support and encouragement when they have an altercation with a protester. That allows some more zealous and less considered members of those law enforcement agencies the opportunity to go beyond the capacity of the law—to overstep, and to do some of the things that happened on
The other aspect of the psychological debate relates to citizens who wish to protest, because in debates surrounding this issue, the notion that there is somehow something illegitimate and difficult about people going to protest about something they are concerned about will lead many of them to sit at home and say, “I do not want to get involved. It is too much trouble.” That is not a good place for a democratic society to be. We ought to be making sure that we facilitate and stand up for the rights of people to express their opinions and disagree with others.
I have a lot of respect for the hon. Gentleman, but he is giving the impression that north of the border in Scotland, no protester is ever arrested, convicted, or indeed put in prison. However, over the past five or six years, there have been numerous occasions when protesters have been arrested, convicted and imprisoned in Scotland, and indeed when protesters have had restrictions placed on their ability to repeat their protest. I was reading in the paper about a young lady in Glasgow who was restricted from continuing with her protest while on bail, so obviously the Scottish Government are drawing a line somewhere between these two competing rights. That is all the British Government are seeking to do in England and Wales.
Before the hon. Gentleman replies, I ask him to keep a watchful eye on the clock.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I hope to speak for less time than the hon. Member for Bury North.
I take the point made by Kit Malthouse. Actually, I am on record as having stood up for the people who were arrested at demonstrations last year in my own city of Edinburgh, and I thought Police Scotland did overstep the mark on that occasion. As a consequence, no charges materialised, and the police have more or less accepted that, but they did not have the Public Order Act to turbocharge the possibility of that overreach and overstep. That is why I am concerned about the Act and believe it should be repealed.
One understands that there has been a debate happening inside the right of British politics in recent decades. It is distressing but understandable that legislation such as this Act has gone on the statute book because an argument inside the Conservative party has been won by those of a more populist and authoritarian persuasion, and lost by those for whom human rights is a primary concern. That saddens me, and I know there are Government Members who are also concerned about it, but it is perhaps what one might expect from a party of the right.
What absolutely astonishes me is the reaction of His Majesty’s Opposition in this debate. I do not buy the argument that they do not want to support this motion because they think it is a stunt. One could—and they do—accuse us of that all the time. The truth is that the Labour party is embarrassed to support the repeal of this legislation, and that is a terrible thing to have happened. A once great political party that was born out of resistance and protest, and whose members’ views were framed by campaigning against social injustice, is now prepared to turn a blind eye and accept the constraints being put on our right to protest by this Act. It really is sad. I have friends on the Opposition Benches who are disquieted by that, and I hope very much that they will develop the confidence and the ability to bring their leadership into check.
It does no service to British democracy and no service to the British people when the Labour party—the party of opposition to this Conservative Government—sits on its hands and will not support the repeal of this most oppressive piece of legislation, which is taking away the rights and freedoms that have underpinned society in Scotland and England for centuries.
Order. I still intend to call the Front Benchers at 6.40 pm.
I voted against the Public Order Act 2023 at every stage of its passage, and I outlined in my intervention the impact on Scots—those going to protest and those police officers involved in public aid. When the SNP Front Bencher, Anne McLaughlin stands to conclude the debate, I would appreciate it if she explained the legislative consent motion that was passed by the Scottish Government. I accept that it is limited in scope and refers to legacy legislation, but it would be good to understand why we have ended up in a position where some part of the Act has an effect within Scotland geographically.
I note that as a whole—I accept that it will have been a conscience motion—the SNP abstained on the abortion amendment that was passed on Report. I assume that that was because it would not have been applicable in Scotland, but the inclusion of the amendment does take England beyond where Scotland is currently, and again I hope that the SNP Front Bencher can update us on what is happening with abortion buffer zone legislation in Scotland, so that it can be brought forward at an early stage.
I mentioned police officers at the outset of my remarks. Those who, like me, participated in the progress of the Public Order Act at many, many stages will be well aware that I am a former police officer. Indeed, I am the only one to have spoken today. I may not have evidence of what happened at the coronation on
Sir John Hayes, who is no longer in his place, made comparisons with police forces in other countries. I would say this to him, were he here: the origin of policing in the UK is policing by consent, and I am sure that all of us on both sides of the House agree with that principle. We do not have the militaristic history of many other national forces in other parts of Europe. That is how our policing has developed, and it is why we feel so strongly about this legislation.
In the Bill Committee, the importance of dialogue between those seeking to protest and the police was clearly outlined. If that dialogue takes place, protest can be facilitated and limits to disruption can be set. This Act and, frankly, the impact of its first contact with the public will completely undermine that relationship, and I believe it will make disruptive protest more likely to occur, rather than less.
In addressing directly the events surrounding the coronation arrets, the Minister explained away the arrest under this legislation of Alice Chambers and, indeed, those from Republic who were later released with the reason that it was a dynamic situation. He said that with the benefit of hindsight, it may have been different. I am sorry, but it is the actual job of the police to be highly trained and highly skilled so that they can respond appropriately in dynamic and highly pressured situations and make the right decisions in those circumstances, not have to have them corrected with the benefit of hindsight. Again, what does this legislation’s first contact with the public do to trust in policing?
During the passage of the legislation, I raised training in relation to both capacity—the time to train, including abstractions from frontline policing for that training—and capability. We know from the Casey report the high proportion of probationary constables in response and borough policing roles in the Metropolitan police, and they are often the same officers who are abstracted to police protests. We need to be confident that they have the ability and capability to do so. In response to my question during the urgent question last week, the Minister disclosed that the College of Policing guidance on the Act has not yet been published, so those policing last week were arguably, even if generally public order trained, not specifically trained in relation to this legislation. The consequences of that are clear.
The Labour shadow Minister, Sarah Jones, said that this debate is a stunt, but, frankly, Opposition day motions are an opportunity for Opposition MPs to do what they are supposed to do in legislative time, and that is to oppose. Having opposed this Bill at every stage, I will be taking the opportunity to repeal it, and I will be supporting the motion.
I want the Act to be repealed because it is a dangerous Act and, in spite of the protests we have heard, it very much affects the people of my constituency. It is not my choice that their laws are too often made here, but that is the way we have it for now. If they want to protest against the laws that have been made against them and pushed on to them, this is the place that they should come to protest. Scotland’s citizens are not yet in the same position relative to this place as the French citizens the Minister mentioned earlier. One day soon we will be, but for now, if my constituents want to protest against the obscenity of nuclear weapons, against the theft of the WASPI women’s pensions, against the daylight robbery that is inflation in food prices and electricity prices, against the billions of their pounds that are being thrown away through incompetence on HS2 and against the further billions being gobbled up by Tory party donors and friends through dodgy covid contracts, the place to protest against all those things is here—either outside this place or in the vicinity of this place—and anything that impedes the right of citizens to protest outside this place does affect my constituents. I notice, by the way, that even though the Tories and Labour think this is nothing to do with Scotland, they were quite happy to whip their Scottish MPs to vote on the Bill’s passage through this House.
It used to be a matter of television satire in a “Not the Nine O’Clock News” sketch that a police officer could arrest a completely innocent man on a whole series of trumped-up charges—because, we were led to believe, of the colour of his skin—such as possession of an offensive mother-in-law, or wearing a loud tie in a residential area during the hours of darkness. We now have it confirmed that, among the reasons that people—possibly my constituents—can be arrested and charged on the whim of a police officer on suspicion of having intent to cause serious disruption, are that they are protesting outside this place while walking too slow, running too fast, shouting too loud, having shoelaces that are long enough to tie themselves up to a lamppost with, carrying a megaphone or simply being close to a police officer who thinks they might have the intent to do any of those things. It could even be, as was the case with one unfortunate ultra-royalist last week, that they are standing in a crowd close to somebody who a police officer thinks might be thinking about doing one of those things. That can get them huckled, locked up and, as my hon. and learned Friend Joanna Cherry said, made to spend the whole day in the cells, when they had clearly neither done anything wrong nor ever had any intent to do anything wrong. It strikes me that, in the same way as “Not the Nine O’Clock News” had all those ludicrous offences, the Minister, who is no longer in his place, appears to have accepted that if he is not quite the Minister for silly walks, he probably is the Minister for walking too slowly.
The Minister has said today what he said in answer to the urgent question last week, and it is an important point. He referred to clear evidence of multiple plots to deliberately cause a stampede to endanger the public. That would be a serious and reckless way to behave. Very interestingly, in the detailed statement the commissioner has issued—the statement is still on the Metropolitan police website—he does not say that that was the intent. The police were concerned about loud, noisy conduct that might have upset the military horses—military horses that are scared of noise, really? But very pointedly, they have not made a public statement that the intention was to cause danger to the public. That is important, because I cannot believe that the commissioner would not have said that if they thought they had the evidence to say it. I hope the Minister will clarify that point when summing up, or at least by responding in another way.
Where there is a genuine threat to public safety, we expect the police to intervene. The police thinking that somebody might have in their possession something that could potentially be used to cause disruption is not a legitimate cause for arrest; at least one Scottish Conservative MP could be arrested for carrying a whistle on his way home from one of his many jobs. Almost every significant advance in the rights of citizens, not only here but across the world, has relied on people doing things that would now be unlawful, criminal offences in the United Kingdom, with its mother of Parliaments; I notice no one seems to know who the father was.
This is a bad law, it is a dangerous law and it cannot be allowed to stand. This law would never be acceptable in Scotland. We heard earlier that when the people of Wales get a proper chance to decide their own future, they will get rid of this law as well. This debate offers Parliament a chance to accept that it has made a mistake and to put its mistake right now, not wait 10 years for the mistake to bed in.
I thank all Members who have spoken in this SNP debate on the repeal of the Public Order Act 2023. I particularly want to mention the speeches of my hon. Friend Alison Thewliss, my hon. and learned Friend Joanna Cherry and my hon. Friends the Members for Glenrothes (Peter Grant) and for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard), but where on earth were the Back Benchers from the Labour party? They are supposed to be the official Opposition, but perhaps we should not be surprised that the party that claimed to be opposed to this clampdown on the right of people to speak out and then U-turned when the polls said that we might actually be able to do something about it seems to have clamped down on its own MPs. No doubt those Labour MPs who have been—
No, as the hon. Lady refused to take my interventions.
No doubt those Labour MPs who have been consistent and committed in their principled opposition to this Act have been reminded that they are up for reselection soon. What about the rights of their constituents to be represented? What on earth has happened to the Labour party?
These are turbulent and troubling times. I doubt anyone in this place expected much of what we have witnessed in the last five years. From the global pandemic to the outbreak of war in Ukraine, from the mammoth surge in our constituents’ energy bills to the unprecedented rise in inflation, or from the erosion of our shorelines to the erosion of our human rights and liberties under Conservative rule, nobody could have predicted the extent of even that, but we can decide how we respond to it.
As a republican, perhaps the only positive to come from the King’s coronation for me is that the police’s use of this Act and other recent policing legislation has shone a light on exactly what these pieces of legislation really mean for people. The world watched on as members of Republic were shamefully arrested for holding pre-arranged, peaceful and lawful protests. The world must have been aghast, too, when three volunteers from Westminster Council’s Night Stars team were arrested while handing out rape alarms to women the night before the coronation. The police could do both of those things because this legislation hands them almost a free rein. This Conservative Government were hoping that might have gone unnoticed by the masses, but the coronation has ensured that the world now knows just how oppressive the UK has become.
The Public Order Bill was cobbled together when the Government did not get their way with their long list of 11th-hour amendments to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill. The House of Lords defeated those amendments. I am no fan of that institution, because I believe in elected representation and I do not believe in gifting power to friends, but the Government do, and they should have accepted that the system they support does not always go in their favour.
Anyway, the Government could not accept that, so they simply repackaged those amendments and within months moulded them into this badly drafted mess. It is not the only example: this is the Conservative Government’s new way of circumventing their version of democracy when they do not get their way. When the legislation is so bad it cannot get through, it is temporarily shelved and brought back in the hope that we have forgotten about it or do not have the energy to fight it. I can see why they might think that about the Labour party, as it has ably demonstrated for us today, but the SNP will always have the energy to fight for our constituents, because this pattern of behaviour is making an absolute mockery of the legislative process, and, worse still, a mockery of this place and our time here. It is also evading parliamentary scrutiny and procedure. For months, we argued that a definition of serious disruption must be written into the legislation and we were told that the Home Secretary would define it for us. The House can imagine how much reassurance that gave me. A day after Royal Assent, the Home Secretary introduced legislation by statutory instrument. Those regulations lowered the threshold for serious disruption from “significant” to simply “more than minor”, which does not fit with the descriptions we have heard from Tory Members today. Those regulations covered proposals that had already been rejected by peers across all parties during the Bill’s passage.
The haste by which the Acts were given assent and enacted meant that, when they hit the streets, the police were given zero time to train frontline officers. That is not fair on those officers. I remember seeing incredible footage last year. Officers arrested a well-known-to-us and pretty noisy protester outside this place under the policing Act just days after its enactment. It was ludicrous: when the protester rightly questioned why he was being arrested, those officers were forced to take out a laptop to look up the relevant legislation. Liberty, which is probably the most foremost civil liberties organisation in the UK, called the combination of the policing Act on public protest and the use of facial recognition technology a “toxic cocktail of measures”. It is not wrong.
For the majority of people, the right to protest is one of the few tools left at their disposal to push for change. My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow Central, in an excellent speech, listed numerous peaceful protests that she has joined here. The Minister listed all the deliberate planned disruptions that he said people are sick of. Equally, I could list all the deliberate planned Tory policies that they are sick of and should have the right to protest against. We will all face serious disruption when the ice cap melts—a point not lost on the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Volker Türk. How embarrassing to be called out by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights when apparently Britain used to be this bastion of human rights. How the mighty have fallen.
I thank Wendy Chamberlain for her support for this today. In answer to her question, the legislative consent motion that the Scottish Parliament supported was for one small clause, and she knows that the Scottish Government are not asked for legislative consent unless the measure is specific to Scotland. I can be clear that the SNP utterly opposes the Public Order Act.
One of the most egregious parts of the Act is suspicionless stop and search, which the Labour Party was vehemently opposed to, and rightly so. The right for the police to stop one of our constituents and search them without any suspicion of wrongdoing is better suited to Putin’s Russia than it is here. Yes, the blame for it lies fairly and squarely with the Conservative Government, but people expect to be able to rely on the main Opposition to oppose, and sometimes stop the governing party when that is called for. They expect to be able to rely on the Labour party to fight for their human rights and fight against racism—make no mistake, the huge disparity in the number of black people being stopped and searched is racist—but where was the Labour party when it came to the final hurdle? It caved, and it de-prioritised suspicionless stop and search.
We all know in here that Opposition parties often work much more closely together than the public realise. I want to try to explain what happened to people who might not know much about the internal machinations of Parliament. The SNP had an understanding with the Labour party that we did not need to call a vote on suspicionless stop and search because it would do it. Unlike in the Scottish Parliament, here, every party can only call votes on one or two parts of a Bill—I am saying this for members of the public. Because Labour told us that it would call the vote on it, we did not. Guess what? Labour did not either, so we lost the chance to remove suspicionless stop and search from the legislation at that stage.
Labour colleagues later said that it had been a mix-up at their end, so I said nothing publicly, despite being bitterly disappointed at the wasted opportunity, because I thought that we were on the same side. I thought that we could fight this dreadful piece of legislation together. The Labour MP in question assured me that there would be opportunities to tackle it in the Lords and Labour did duly table amendments, but again it fell at the final hurdle and caved in.
Now that the polls are finally turning and there is a chance Labour will get into power next year, we are told that it will not repeal the Act because it cannot unpick legislation and its party leader says he does not care if their policies sound like Conservative policies. How can Labour Members look their constituents in the eye and say that, yes, they will allow police forces under a Labour Government to carry out intrusive searches on anyone even near a public protest for no good reason? This is not a debating society and they are not supposed to be simply a change of management. This is Parliament. This is where we can and should make radical changes. If they are not interested, why are they even here?
I will end with a warning for both main parties in here. We are here to get independence for Scotland and, mark my words, we will get it. They are both utterly opposed to the people of Scotland making their own decisions, but if they keep stifling the right of the people of Scotland to protest against the decisions they make on their behalf, they will find more and more of them turn to us and they will make it a whole lot easier for people to vote for independence, whenever the next opportunity arises.
It feels slightly churlish for a Conservative to get in the way of a family dispute between the SNP and Labour, but if I may answer on behalf of His Majesty’s Government, I will begin by giving a little praise and thanks to Wendy Chamberlain. As a serving police officer, she did a huge amount for her community and our country. It is wonderful to have her voice in this Chamber. I must, however, disagree with the points she made.
A lot of the aspects of these debates have been focused on the nature of protest. The reality is that this is not a debate about the nature of protest. It is not a debate about the right of free citizens to associate on the streets to call for or against Government policies. It is not a debate about the ability of individuals, from anywhere across these islands, to protest about whether their fellow citizens should or should not be allowed to do things. It is not even a debate about whether we in this House should or should not encourage, or dissuade fellow citizens from certain actions. No, this is a debate about whether or not a small minority of people should be allowed to use disruption as protest: to use disruption as a way of stopping others from conducting their lives—
I won’t, thank you. As the hon. Gentleman spoke for as much time as my hon. Friend James Daly, I am sure he will give me the few moments I have to close.
This is about whether a few people can use disruption, instead of allowing many to associate, to express their views and to just go about their business as they have every right to do. It is absolutely essential that we stick to that point because that is exactly why the then Scottish Justice Secretary Keith Brown—I am still rather a fan of his, actually, but I know I am probably unique in that in this Chamber—supported it. He welcomed it and agreed it. As a former royal marine, he knows about order and discipline, so I am delighted that he did so. He welcomed it because he knows that protest is absolutely legitimate, but disruption and the use of disruption to silence others, to stop people going about their business and to dissuade others from expressing their views is not.
That is really quite something, but I suppose the main point of the debate is not really about protest at all, is it? Here, I am slightly drawn to the hon. Member for Croydon—the one opposite me, Sarah Jones, rather than the one who sits next to me, the Minister for Crime, Policing and Fire, my right hon. Friend Chris Philp. She pointed out correctly that this is really—
Three of you. Well, there we go, aren’t I lucky?
The hon. Lady pointed out correctly that this debate is not about protest at all; it is actually about distraction. It is about distracting people in Scotland and across these islands from what we are really seeing here, which is a Scottish Nationalist party that has lost its way. It is talking about protest because it does not want to talk about policing. When I go to Gartcosh, I see the extraordinary efforts of the British security services in all their different ways, whether Police Scotland, MI5, the different elements of His Majesty’s Revenue and Customs or the National Crime Agency working together. I see an extraordinary panoply of officers who are doing their best for the country in ways that inspire huge respect for anybody who has the pride and security of our nation at heart.
However, every time I go, one thing comes up from the Police Scotland officers—fine individuals led by a very impressive chief constable. Every time, they point out that, despite Barnett formulas and equal availability of cash—in fact, despite higher taxes—the number of police officers in Scotland is going down. In England and Wales, it is going up. Crime in England and Wales is going down but, sadly, in Scotland crime is going up. It is not just about criminal justice or the ability of our fellow citizens across these islands to live and enjoy their lives freely without fear of persecution or being attacked by fellow citizens or others—it is across the board.
Despite well over a decade of absolute rule in Holyrood, the SNP has let down people in Scotland time and again. Education results are down, avoidable deaths are up, poorest student numbers are down and taxes are up. Again and again, a catalogue of failure and a pattern of wasted opportunity, wasted money and wasted lives are ruining opportunities for people across our islands.
I have been told several times today that this debate is relevant to the SNP because there is a small element of possibility, through the British Transport police, that connects it to Scotland. I have also been told that it is relevant because Scottish people can come down and protest in Westminster. It is also true that people across the whole of the United Kingdom have had the great benefit over hundreds of years of Scotland’s huge successes: the Scottish enlightenment, the great universities of Edinburgh and Glasgow, and the huge opportunities of the industrial and economic revolution that came out of Scotland. They have enriched and empowered us all.
It is right that we as British citizens hold the SNP to account for its failure in letting down all the British people across these islands, because it is not just in Scotland that the failure is felt. As a Unionist, I can say passionately that I feel that failure across the whole of the United Kingdom. It is absolutely unacceptable to be silent when we see Scottish people being so ill served by such a failed Administration.
Let me come back to the Public Order Act—[Interruption.] To great cheers from the SNP Benches. The Act was passed and then saw one of the greatest moments of assembly in London that we have seen in many years. Many people protested peacefully. Many people said “Not my King”, although constitutionally that is an odd statement in a monarchy. Many people were able to express their views peacefully and freely. That does not really parallel to any of the countries that Tommy Sheppard cited, but it points to the extraordinary liberty that our officers of the law have managed to secure our great nation. It points to the absurdity of this debate.
On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. A few moments ago, the Minister claimed that the former Justice Secretary, Keith Brown MSP, had welcomed the Public Order Act. Well, I have just spoken to the former Justice Secretary, who is a much-loved and well-respected member of the Scottish National party, contrary to the nonsense uttered by the Minister.
Keith Brown tells me that, although the SNP supported a little element of the Act, he, the Scottish Government and the Scottish Parliament otherwise opposed the Act in its entirety. Will the Minister correct the record?
The hon. Lady will appreciate that all Members are responsible for their own statements, and that that is not a matter for the Chair. She has, however, placed her point on the record.