Amendment 292Q

Part of Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill - Committee (11th Day) – in the House of Lords at 8:00 pm on 24th November 2021.

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Photo of Baroness Chakrabarti Baroness Chakrabarti Labour 8:00 pm, 24th November 2021

In response to that and in support of the broad thrust of my noble friend Lord Coaker’s probing amendment—I think it is fair to call it that—I have long had concerns about public space protection orders in general, and I defer to no one as a civil libertarian, but there is a great tradition in human rights thinking for child protection. So my instinctive response to the noble Baroness is that it is not because the protesters are anti-vaxxers and I disagree with them, it is that it is at school. They are young and potentially vulnerable people, and it does not seem proportionate or fair to me that we as grown-up legislators in this place take greater protection for our immediate vicinity than we give to even primary school children up and down the country, regardless of the nature of the protest.

The point about free speech and freedom to protest being a two-way street is incredibly important, and I suspect that we will return to it in a forthcoming group, but on this issue, for me, at least, the principle is not that I think that this is dangerous speech or disinformation—it is out there anyway online, et cetera—it is that no young person, particularly a very young person, should be subject to an aggressive demonstration, whether or not it is one that I would approve of, on their way to or from school.

Some of us remember the Holy Cross school dispute in Northern Ireland some years ago. The reason why Her Majesty’s Government had to intervene with soldiers, and so on—it was tragic—was not to take sides in the dispute, it was to protect young children, who do not have the same robustness as an older person and should not feel scared on their way to or back from school. I would take that view whether or not the protest by adults from outside the school community was one with which I agreed—about the climate catastrophe or whatever else it happened to be.

It is so important at this stage in the evening, before we get to the next group, to introduce the concept of the two-way street in relation to free speech. So I support my noble friend Lord Coaker in the thrust of his amendment, about schools being special—particularly primary schools, but possibly also secondary schools; that will be up for more detailed discussion—and needing some level of protection from whatever kind of protest by people from outside the school community.

I add that caveat because I think children should be able to protest themselves if they want to. I would not want inadvertently to do anything that caused criminal sanction for children and young people who chose to launch their own protest about whatever it was.

I see this very much as a probing amendment, but the status quo, whereby we have these protections as legislators in the vicinity around the Palace of Westminster —and companies have greater protections from pickets than primary school children have from aggressive demonstrations from whatever quarter—does not seem right. Human rights principles are: always protect children first, and any interference then has to be necessary and proportionate. But equal treatment and the two-way street, particularly in relation to freedom of speech and the right to protest, are crucial.