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 Lord Sharpe of Epsom Lord Sharpe of Epsom Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip) 8:00 pm, 24th November 2021

My Lords, I thank noble Lords for taking part in this debate. The noble Lord, Lord Coaker asked if I could shed any light on the grouping methodology. No, I cannot, but I salute the collegiate nature of the noble Lord, Lord Faulkner.

I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, for explaining what he describes as a probing amendment to tackle the issue of disruptive anti-vaccination protests outside schools. Like him, I stand by people’s right to protest, but as I am sure we will debate when we get to Part 3 of the Bill, this is not an unqualified right, and there is a line to be drawn. When crossed, it is right that the police or, in this case, local authorities should be able to take appropriate and proportionate action to protect schoolchildren and their parents, as well as teachers and other school staff.

The police and local authorities have a range of powers which can be used to manage protest activity affecting schools. This includes powers in the Public Order Act 1986 to manage protests, measures in the Education Act 1996 to prevent nuisance and disturbances on school premises, and measures in the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014—as noted by the noble Lord, Lord Coaker—targeted at anti-social behaviour. The police also have their common law powers to prevent a breach of the peace.

Despite prominent media reporting, the scale of the issue is quite small. I concur with the noble Lord’s statistics, which I have seen. The issue has affected 68 schools in the various geographies he talked about, and the number of protesters ranges from one to about 20. But the statistics do not add any colour to the human experience people are suffering, so I take the noble Lord’s point.

These people typically hand out leaflets and display placards, with some serving “liability notices” or “cease and desist” letters to head teachers. The Government continue to closely monitor anti-vaccination activity occurring at schools. There is close working between the vaccine programme, the police, local authorities and other partners to gather intelligence and provide proportionate mitigations to keep people safe.

I understand that, on rare occasions, protesters have engaged in criminal activity, as also noted by the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, such as behaving in an intimidating manner on school grounds such as to cause harassment, alarm or distress. Where criminal behaviour such as this occurs, the police already have the powers they need to deal with those involved and are dealing with any criminal behaviour.

We intend to bring in several new measures in the Bill that could help address this issue. Through the regulation-making power to clarify the meaning of

“serious disruption to the life of the community”,

we will specify that this includes where there is prolonged physical disruption inhibiting access to educational facilities. We are also enabling the police to place conditions on a protest if the noise from it causes or risks causing serious disruption to the activities of an organisation; this would include schools.

Finally, we are introducing serious disruption prevention orders, which will allow the courts to place prohibitions and requirements on people who have committed criminal protest-related offences and/or have a history of, for example, causing or contributing to serious disruption at protests. So, I hope that the noble Lord and the whole Committee will support these measures when we come to them.

On the noble Lord’s proposal for a

“fast-track public spaces protection order”,

we are not persuaded that there is a need for this, given the way that the existing legislation governing these orders is framed. This will address the noble Lord’s specific questions about the pace of the orders.

The amendment seeks to provide for a truncated five-day consultation period for PSPOs when relevant criteria are met. While the legislation already sets out certain sensible minimum requirements for making a PSPO, there is no prescribed minimum consultation period. As such, the amendment would make no material change to the pace at which a PSPO can be implemented.

Indeed, although it is recommended, there is currently no statutory requirement for local authorities to undertake public consultation at all on a PSPO. The legislation requires that the local authority consult the police, the PCC, any community representatives they consider appropriate and the owner or occupier of the land within the restricted area—in this case, the school in question. But it is within the gift of a local authority to conduct such a consultation within five days on issues where there is broad consensus and the evidence is in place.

The noble Lord could be forgiven for thinking that PSPOs have a lengthy minimum consultation period because councils often choose to carry out a public consultation, and they do so for good reason. PSPOs are designed to impose restrictions on what people can do in in public spaces. As any dog owner subject to restrictions regarding where they can or cannot walk a dog will tell you, these are often highly contentious matters, and we expect authorities to be cautious about using powers that restrict individual liberty.

If a local authority were to make a fast-tracked PSPO under this amendment, it would still be accountable in court for demonstrating that the restrictions placed are compliant with the European Convention on Human Rights—and in particular that any infringements of Article 10 and 11 rights are necessary and proportionate. Legislation explicitly permitting a fast-tracked PSPO would not change this, and the local authority could find itself subject to increased legal risks through not performing a more comprehensive consultation before imposing a PSPO.

It is also important to note that experience to date suggests that physical protests at schools are typically short in duration and rarely repeated at the same location, so the widespread use of exclusion zones is unlikely to be an effective response in practice. If repeated protest activities take place at one location, they can be considered as an option, alongside other policing and community responses.

In summary, I share the noble Lord’s desire to protect pupils, parents and school staff from aggressive anti-vaccination protests, but the existing powers to make PSPOs are already available to local authorities, and these will be augmented by the strengthened police powers in Part 3 of the Bill.

I turn to Amendment 292S, which, as the noble Lord, Lord Bassam—I commend his long association with this subject—has explained, seeks to extend the scope of football banning orders. I say at the outset that I do not believe that there is any difference between the noble Lord’s position and the Government’s.

I think that we were all shocked by the disgraceful online racist abuse of black England players following the Euro 2020 final in July. There can be no excuse for behaviour of that kind and it is right that people who perpetrate that kind of abuse online in connection with football should no longer have the right to attend matches. That is why my right honourable friend the Prime Minister, as the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, acknowledged, announced in the House of Commons within days of the Euro 2020 final that we intend to amend the legislation governing football banning orders so that they can be imposed on those who commit online abuse in connection with football.

I assure your Lordships that we are proceeding at pace to give effect to this firm and clear commitment. We are working through all of the issues that have been raised. As a former Home Office Minister himself, the noble Lord will understand that translating policy objectives into legislation is not always as straightforward as one might hope. His amendment is deceptively simple, but we believe that other changes are needed to the Football Spectators Act to achieve the desired outcome. We are making good progress, but this will take a little time to get right. We are also considering the options as regards the appropriate legislative vehicle. I do not rule out using this one, but I cannot give him the firm commitment that he seeks at this stage. What I can do is undertake to update him ahead of Report.