My Lords, I move this amendment on behalf of my noble friend Lord Rosser; it is also in the names of my noble friend Lord Dubs and the noble Viscount, Lord Colville of Culross. I will be reasonably brief on this group of amendments, because, unlike the ones we are to reach later today, we have had prior debates on, and scrutiny of, some of these provisions.
The group covers the existing protest provisions in the Bill, but this amendment focuses on one particular priority issue, namely, the imposition on public processions conditions related to noise. Indeed, the clause targets protests for being too noisy. It provides a trigger for imposing conditions on public assemblies, public processions and one-person protests if a protest is too noisy. Many noble Lords in this Chamber will know that many people would have fallen foul of the conditions in this proposed new legislation had it indeed been the law at the time. I certainly have been on numerous demonstrations, as have many noble Lords behind me —and, I am sure, some in front of me—
Whatever: they will have been on various demonstrations. Whether they were on behalf of the Countryside Alliance or not, the principle would have been the same and noise would have been a part of them. Has democracy collapsed in the face of noisy protests over the last couple of centuries? It has not. At some of the protests that I have been on—and, I am sure, at those that many noble Lords have been on—the noise has been phenomenal. It has been part of the object of them. Never have any Government of any colour sought to ban protests on the basis of noise or to put conditions on the basis of noise.
Protests are noisy—whether it is local families protesting the closure of a leisure centre or a march in front of this Parliament, protests make noise. The more well attended a protest is, the more popular support an issue has, in general, the noisier it will be. These clauses do not restrict protests for being violent or out of control or for causing damage; these are peaceful protests, but they can be restricted because somebody, in someone’s mind, is too noisy. The clause provides that a protest can trigger these conditions if the noise generated might cause
“serious unease, alarm or distress”.
It is an exceptionally low and vague threshold, as many noble Lords pointed out in Committee.
The Government have sought to do something about that. They have recognised it and thought, “This is a bit of a problem; they are quite right about some of the vagueness of this and about some of the definitions”, so the Government have brought forward a series of amendments, which are in this group. Without reading this to noble Lords—because they can read it for themselves—we can look at proposed new subsection (2ZC) in government Amendment 116, I will just leave this open and hanging in the air. If that clarifies what “noisy” means in the context of a protest, when it talks about people connected to organisations in the vicinity,
“not being reasonably able, for a prolonged period of time, to carry on” their activities, the courts are going to have a field day. That is the clarification; that is the way in which the Government seek to do something about it. Even the Government recognise that vagueness is a problem. They are trying to do something about vagueness with a clarification that is equally vague, but which allows them to say that they have tried to address the problems raised in Committee.
Of course, the Government always have to balance protests with the rights of people to go about their lawful business. Balance is always important, but the right to protest in this country has never, ever had to have a condition placed upon it that is about noise. It never has. The noise generated at protests that I have been on has been immense, but never have the Government turned round or panicked and said that they needed to impose conditions on that in some way in order to do something about the protests. These are very serious amendments that we have put forward. These are very serious debates that will take place from now on, on the existing clauses and then on the new clauses. They involve the fundamental right of people to protest. Making noise is a fundamental part of the freedom to protest properly in a democracy.
My Lords, I also put my name to Amendments 115 and 123, because I am still concerned about the Minister’s assurance in Committee on Clauses 56 and 57 that the threshold for the police to impose these conditions on noise would be very high. However, the threshold in Clause 56(3) that the noise caused by protesters could cause reasonably firm people to suffer serious unease seems subjective, and a low threshold. I fear that it will put the police in an invidious position.
I refer the House to the JCHR report recommendations on these clauses. It says:
“Using multiple terms that are open to wide interpretation, such as ‘intensity’ and ‘serious unease’, leaves an excessive degree of judgment in the hands of a police officer … It will also give rise to uncertainty for those organising and participating in demonstrations and fails to provide convincing safeguards against arbitrary or discriminatory use of these powers.”
I urge your Lordships to support Amendments 115 and 123.
My Lords, I rise to support the Government on this matter. It rather caught me by surprise that I was going to but, having studied the amendments with some care, I am on their side. As regards Amendment 116, these provisions are a serious improvement on what went before. I am bound to say that I was very uneasy with what went before but Amendment 116 addresses some of the concerns. I have two drafting points to make, which could be addressed in the House of Commons if the Government were so minded.
First, I absolutely agree with those who worry about the word “significant”. “Significant” is pretty trivial; it is not “substantial” or “serious” and, speaking for myself, I rather hope that the Government substitute “substantial” or “serious” when the Bill gets to the House of Commons.
My second point concerns proposed new subsection (2ZC). Here, I do not think that the Government have gone far enough, because what is being contemplated in that provision as it stands—I am sorry, I simply do not agree with the noble Lord who spoke from the Opposition Benches on this—is a total inability to carry on the work in the vicinity of the noise. But we should also address circumstances where there is a considerable inconvenience to ordinary citizens, which takes me to my fundamental point: of course demonstrators have the right to demonstrate, but ordinary citizens also have rights to go about their ordinary business, to work, to enjoy reasonable tranquillity and to expect others to respect that. It seems that the law has gone too far in favour of a demonstration, and that is very unfortunate. On the whole, I therefore support the Government in this matter.
It is true that if I was drafting this thing, I would have done it slightly differently. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, about unease. What does unease mean? The noble Viscount, Lord Colville, makes the same point and I agree. I also agree on the concept of not being able to carry on proper business. That is slightly doubtful to my way of thinking as well. However, on the whole, although I came initially to think these things had gone too far, I now think that the Government are broadly speaking right in trying to bring about a better balance between the rights of demonstrators and ordinary citizens.
Could I just mention to the noble Viscount, Lord Hailsham, that these are ordinary people who protest? These are people who quite often just do not agree with the Government. I support a lot of protests that happen at the moment; there are sometimes protests that I do not support, but I support those people’s right to protest. On noise, I agree completely with the noble Lord, Lord Coaker. How do the Government seriously think that protest is going to happen without noise? That is a fundamental part of it, whether it is drums, chanting or singing, or just talking through a megaphone. These provisions really are so oppressive. I have attached my name to Amendments 122, 133 and 147. These clauses should be deleted from the Bill. They are repressive and plain nasty, and they really have to go.
My Lords, I have added my name to the amendments in this group standing in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, particularly those related to striking out Clauses 56, 57, 58 and 62. Briefly, in my view the Bill represents the biggest threat to the right to dissent and non-violent protest in my lifetime. It is deeply reactionary. It is an authoritarian attack on the fundamental liberties of our citizens.
If enacted in past generations, it would have throttled the suffragettes and blocked their ability to rattle Parliament’s cage to secure votes for women. It would have prevented antifascists stopping Mosley’s bullying, anti-Semitic blackshirts at Cable Street in the East End of London in 1936. It would have thwarted anti-apartheid protests that I led, in 1969 and 1970, which successfully stopped all white South African sports tours—a success which Nelson Mandela, then on Robben Island, hailed as a vital stepping stone in the ultimate defeat of apartheid. It would have prevented the Anti-Nazi League protests that stopped a resurgent and anti-Semitic, Islamophobic and fascist National Front in its tracks between 1977 and 1980, and in the early 1990s, similarly, the BNP. If Boris Johnson and Priti Patel want to be on the wrong side of history, the Bill is certainly the way to do it. I hope that this House will resist them.
My Lords, if one is going to make a change of this kind, which, as the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, says, has not happened before, one has to have a very good reason for it. The Government have produced no good reason for it. What they have said is that there are many protests which are very difficult and awkward. There are protests which have embarrassed me considerably as chairman of the Climate Change Committee, because I have had to explain that they are right about what they are protesting against but should not be doing it in the way they are, so I think it reasonable for me to say that these amendments go far too far. We are a democratic society and if I cannot go outside here and make a noise to point out that I think a whole range of things that the Government —or any Government—are doing are unacceptable, then my human rights are very seriously impugned.
When I came into this House, I said that there were three things I wanted to talk about: the environment, Europe and human rights. I want to be able to go on protesting about the ludicrous policies on Europe. I want to go on protesting about some of the things which have not been done, and ought to be done, about the environment. I want to congratulate the Government on many of the things they have done on the environment and climate change, but I need also to have the opportunity of making it clear when one believes that what they have done is wrong. Dissent and protest are essential parts of democracy. These provisions go too far.
My Lords, I have a number of problems with this part of the Bill that are to do with form and content. The fact that these amendments were brought in at the stage they were seems an abuse of parliamentary scrutiny. Some of the debates we are having could have been sorted out had they been addressed in the normal way. That fits into a pattern of intimations about breaking the rule of law and the authoritarian complexion of the way in which some things are being done in, through or around Parliament. That is my problem with form.
On content, it seems that we would have to remove the statues of Gandhi and Mandela from Parliament Square were these provisions to go through. You cannot laud people later as being great and prophetic actors by exercising the right to dissent, at the same time as clamping down on that in the building over the road. We have heard a lot in recent debates about freedom, particularly in relation to Covid, freedom passes and things like that, but we cannot just pick and choose which freedoms are convenient to us in a democracy.
I say to the noble Lord, Lord Hain, that the dry run for Cable Street was actually the week before, in Holbeck Moor in Leeds. It would have been ruled out as well. There is a significant point to make about the word “significant”, which was mentioned earlier. How is it that in legislation we are able to use words that are so incapable of definition? If something is significant, it is “significant of” something. It is not just significant; that is meaningless as a definition. That is like when people write that something is incredible, which, if it was, would have no credibility; they actually mean the opposite. You can get away with it in ordinary parlance but not in legislation.
My Lords, I am fully in support of the amendment, of course, to which I have put my name. I have served on the Joint Committee on Human Rights, and we have condemned this provision and said that it should not be part of the Bill because it is a breach of fundamental human rights. I have been on quite a lot of demos, and I would probably run foul of this legislation if it went through unamended. I cannot think of any demo that I have been on where we did not try to make noise, because that is part of what being on a demo means. I wonder whether the people who drafted the wording have ever been on a demo themselves—I do not believe it. Those of us who have been on demos know that the noise is encouraging; it tells spectators, who often join in support anyway, what we are about and what we seek to do. This is an absurd idea.
I think of the span of history—my noble friend Lord Hain contributed to this discussion—and there are so many important changes that started with noisy demos. How did some of those changes happen? Without noisy demos, a lot of changes do not happen. One looks at the suffragettes and all sorts of important demos; this is the nature of our democracy, and this Government are trying to trample all over it.
My Lords, I support very much what the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, said on this provision. There are a lot of good things in the Bill, but this is certainly not one of them. People watching this—the public—will think that somehow the Government have lost common sense. The idea that anyone can go on a demonstration and not make noise shows such a lack of common sense that I really do not understand how anyone could possibly have put this forward.
The noble Lord, Lord Hain, mentioned all sorts of demonstrations and historical events that have been helped by noise. Every Saturday, the Zimbabwean diaspora turn up outside the Zimbabwean embassy, sing very loudly and play their drums and music in a loud way. Who is going to decide whether that is bringing unease to people? It certainly brings unease to Mnangagwa in Zimbabwe, I hope. This is something on which I am sure the Minister is sitting there and thinking, “Why on earth are we doing this?” I hope that, even at this stage, the Government will not press these ridiculous amendments.
My Lords, I wish to associate myself strongly with the splendid speech made by my noble friend Lord Deben, who was absolutely right. I hope that I would have been one of those protesting at the time of the Great Reform Bill—I do not know, but I hope that I would have been—but I was in those great crowds from the Countryside Alliance, and I took part in those peaceful demonstrations. Like my noble friend, I have found some of the demonstrations of recent years wholly unacceptable, because they really have interfered with ordinary, decent people going about their business. Sticking yourself to the roof of a train or a road seems something that we should deal with—but not noise.
The noble Baroness, Lady Hoey, was right when she talked about Zimbabwe. Do we wish to see regimes like that continue to repress their people? Is not it right that those living in this country should have a right to make life a little uncomfortable for those who live in the Zimbabwean high commission? It is just silly to put this in. A Bill that is injected with a dose of stupidity is not a very good Bill.
There is so much that I support in the Bill, but the Government have got it wrong here—this is not sensible, and nor is it practical. Are they really going to try to ensure that every demonstration not composed of deaf mutes has everybody arrested? Really, how stupid can you get? I beg of my noble friend who will reply to this debate to take this one away. There are many good things in the Bill, but this is not one of them.
The city of Bristol is a city of activists and protesters, and it has been so for a very long time, particularly at the time of the Great Reform Bill. Many protests nowadays focus on College Green, in the shadow of the cathedral; as a result, I am well aware of the passion and commitment of Bristol activists, and the very real hurt and trauma when protests are mishandled.
Often protests can be annoying, and often they are disruptive—but that is the point. Public spaces, like College Green in Bristol and Parliament Square, are places which are felt to belong to the public, and which have been places where decision-makers like us are confronted by people’s concerns.
The Church often preaches good disagreement, not least because the alternative in our own history has often had rather dire consequences. We can sometimes be guilty of thinking this is just code for respectful, quiet debate in decision chambers. But good disagreement also rests on truly listening and being confronted with truth and with pain. Such things are not always quiet, or orderly.
There is a noble history and tradition of highly disruptive and even angry demonstrations and protest within the Church. The biblical model of the prophet, rising up to rebuke, denounce and criticise was rarely quiet, and rarely popular with those in power. Christian and Jewish tradition show that being a prophet is a dangerous profession. The powerful do not protest on the streets; the powerful have no need to, since they control the levers of change in society. It is those on the outside, who have no other ability to be heard or to create the change they need, who resort to protest. In the common life of a city like Bristol, and of the nation more widely, the right to protest is essential in communicating the concerns of those who feel unheard.
Democracy is not just the ballot box; it is also about making space so that the marginalised, the minorities and the vulnerable are heard. Protests and processions are necessary, an essential aspect to democracy. I am unconvinced that the Government have made a strong enough case that the existing powers of the police are insufficient in limiting legitimate protests. I shall listen with interest to the Minister’s response, but I am minded to support several of the amendments tabled here by noble Lords.
Let us be honest here about some of the underlying drivers of the Government’s policy. People in this country generally did not like the fact that Insulate Britain was obstructing ambulances on major roads, or that Extinction Rebellion was in one case—which affected me directly—stopping people from getting on the Tube. As the noble Lord, Lord Deben, remarked, in both those cases, the protesters were pretty self-defeating. There is one part of the Government’s provisions that we will debate later that deals with major infrastructure, which I think would deal with both those issues.
The noble Viscount, Lord Hailsham, I think suggested that he feels there is a bit too much protest in this country, but he rightly drew attention to the word “unease”, and the difficulty of defining it. It is just as difficult to define the word “inconvenience” or the word “noise”, and several of the other words still present in the Bill. That is why we absolutely cannot support it, because it is completely wrong to put forward powers of this magnitude with language that is fundamentally not just unclear but not possible to resolve—as the government amendments show that it is not possible to resolve.
My Lords, I fear that I am not going to make myself hugely popular by putting a note of dissent into this debate. I know that, given what has been said, noble Lords will do me the courtesy of listening for a moment or two.
Many good arguments have been made in the course of this debate and previously against some provisions in the Bill. Where I think that this House can do itself a disservice is in invoking the legacy of the suffragettes, Nelson Mandela and pro-democracy campaigners in repressive regimes. Is there not a fundamental difference between our liberal democracy—there have been some heinous attacks on individuals and institutions, and we speak of its strength when it is attacked—and those protestors who felt that they had to take disruptive means because they did not have the agency that we have the privilege to be able to have in this country: the right to decide our fate in the ballot and through peaceful process?
I am going to listen carefully to what the Minister says. Certainly, if the characterisation of these measures that have been put forward just now, and in previous iterations of this debate, were true, in that it is effectively sweeping away the right to peaceful protest and to make your voice heard through demonstrating, as a child of protesters myself and someone who has been on many protests—as have many noble Lords in this Chamber—I would, of course, oppose it too. But I have not yet heard a sufficient case that the measures that have been put forward would do that level of damage to the right to protest; rather, they are designed to protect the primacy of our democracy. We can agree or disagree that some of them go too far, but I have real problems with the way much of this has been framed through the discussion of the Bill.
My Lords, it is a great privilege to follow the noble Lord, Lord Walney. Noble Lords will recall—if they were present in Committee—that, in supporting the Bill, I did none the less raise some mild questions about noise. It is a shame the noble Lord, Lord Hogan-Howe, is not here, because I thought he was very compelling in the arguments he made, as a former police chief, as to why these measures around noise were manageable and relevant.
I will listen very closely to what my noble friend the Minister says on this, but I feel pleased that the Government have come forward with the clarifications that they have. I would add—to build on what the noble Lord, Lord Walney, said—that when I think about the Bill and the reason why I support the measures within it in principle, I start from the summer of 2019. I did mention this before, at an earlier stage of the passage of this Bill. This was a point at which there were new forms of protest and demonstration through the summer, and a lot of people who, unlike noble Lords, do not go on protests, were rather concerned about the way that things such as blocking Waterloo Bridge and bringing Oxford Circus to a complete standstill—and this went on for days—were supported by Members of Parliament and very senior high-profile people.
That kind of behaviour was so alien to the way in which people in this country normally protest. It was very alarming to people and we have to remember that we cannot argue in favour of that aspect of our democracy in terms of protest, without also reminding ourselves that some people who were alarmed at the support for that kind of behaviour also looked at Parliament in real concern when we did not respect democracy in the years before that in the way that we ignored the change that some people wanted to make by using the ballot box. I do think we have to see this in the bigger picture.
My Lords, we are at Report stage—although it would be very easy to misrecognise it as Second Reading. I have been supporting the Government this afternoon—but not at this stage and probably not for most of the rest of the debate.
The fact is that this amendment—and most that follow—to my mind, we must support. I entirely accept that it is nonsensical to suggest that by Clause 56, and most of those that follow, the Government is intent on repression. They are not trying consciously to suppress our hallowed rights of protest, of demonstration and of assembly. That is not the position. But I suggest strongly that that is the public perception—that is what the public believe—and understandably so, because it is such an overreaction to anything that has happened.
I too excoriate Insulate Britain: they behaved outrageously and undemocratically, so flatly contrary to the rule of law and wider interests, that we must amend to ensure that they are arrestable and imprisonable without going through the process of contempt of court proceedings in future. But these provisions, as the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, said, simply lack all common sense, they lack all balance and measure, and they are counterproductive.
The noble Baroness behind me suggested that we all, and the wider public, protest things such as stopping the Tube trains, but I would remind your Lordships—I think I have just read—that those who committed that apparent offence were resoundingly acquitted. The fact is that if we pass laws such as this law, that is going to be the reaction: the Government are going to be regarded as tyrants and the public will not play.
My Lords, I tried to say that I think we do not want to muddle up too many things. The Bill might have been brought forward in order to deal with the popular revulsion at things such as the M25 sit-ins or getting on top of the Tube, and we have heard that from a number of noble Lords.
The point about this set of proposals, though, and things such as the triggering noise, is that they do not solve that problem. That is what drives me mad. The second lot of amendments—which were brought in anti-democratically in terms of process—at least looked like they referred to that set of egregious demonstrations. So that is that bit.
One thing that has been said which I think is very important is that there is a fractious atmosphere in society, which the noble Baroness, Lady Stowell, talked about last time we had this discussion, which is that people feel very strongly about some of the issues of the day. They are not prepared to always say that they support the right of demonstration; they think that something else is going on.
But one thing they definitely think is that the police are biased. They think that the police are erratic. Some people will say, “Well, the police won’t intervene because they’re all too busy taking the knee or driving around in rainbow-coloured vans”. Other people will say, “The police are acting like far-right stormtroopers protecting different types of people.” There is a public debate going on about the role of the police.
So, my objection to these amendment is that not only does it concentrate on noise, which nobody has ever complained about—who has brought that up?—but it puts the police in an even more invidious position. I do want to know how the Government will deal with that. The SOAS policy briefing, which I thought summed it up well, said that the Bill
“compels the police to make decisions about whether protests can go ahead, and therefore forces the police to become a visible and controversial actor in ordinary political debate.”
I think that this will make the position of the police much worse, so even if you are not on the side of the right to protest with no ifs and no buts—as I am—from the Government’s point of view and the Home Secretary’s point of view, who say they are doing it to help the police, they are actually putting the police in a position where they are wandering around assessing noise levels and therefore choosing which demos go ahead, which everybody will think is to do with politics and not procedure. So there seem to me to be some unintended consequences of that approach.
My Lords, I share many of the concerns that have been expressed—particularly the absence of a sufficient mischief here and the absence of proper definition of the ingredients of the offence.
I will add just one further point: the ability to demonstrate, and the ability to demonstrate while making a noise, is a very valuable safety valve in our civil society. If you close off that safety valve, you are going to cause a far greater mischief than is currently the case.
My Lords, I do not think that the Government are trying to destroy democracy or steal all our freeborn rights from us, but I do think they are being extremely foolish. The wording of these amendments will create an absolute nightmare for the courts. Sitting here a moment ago I was trying to imagine how a judge would sum up one of these offences to a jury, and what the jury would make of it. It would be a chaotic scenario.
I will say one further thing, on a personal note. I attended both the great demonstrations against the Iraq war in 2002. One of them comprised over a million people, the second around 600,000 people. Those demonstrations would have been in breach of several of these amendments—not just the noise amendment but the various inconvenience amendments on making it difficult for people to get to their bank machines, hospitals and places of work. Under these amendments, those demonstrations would have been illegal. Is that really what Ministers seek to achieve with these amendments? If they do not, this is an extraordinarily foolish piece of drafting.
My Lords, no one likes pickets. Even pickets do not like picketing. However, these clauses impinge on the right to picket, the right to picket is a fundamental aspect of the right to strike, and the right to strike is a fundamental aspect of the right to bargain collectively, which is a fundamental aspect of democracy at work.
Picketing is a highly regulated area of the law in a very sensitive political area. It has been regulated by legislation since 1875 and the last statutory amendment was in the Trade Union Act 2016. There is also a code of practice regulating picketing. There are no exemptions for pickets from either the criminal or the civil law, but these clauses will restrict even further the limited right to picket.
On the issue of noise, other noble Lords have pointed out the vagueness of the concepts involved here, which will impose a great burden on the discretion of the police in deciding what is noisy and what is not. It is notable that legislation has—and workers are very familiar with this—imposed limits on noise by way of decibels and duration in many industries. Those scientific techniques are not used here.
The very purpose of a picket in a trade dispute is to cause
“disruption to the activities of an organisation which are carried on in the vicinity”— namely, the employer. So pickets will be caught. I note that the amendment states that
“serious disruption to the life of the community” may include two situations: first, the supply of
“a time-sensitive product to consumers” and, secondly,
“prolonged disruption of access to … essential goods or any … service, including, in particular, access to … the supply of money, food, water, energy or fuel … a system of communication … a transport facility … an educational institution, or … a service related to health.”
It does not take an expert to know that picketing is put at risk in almost every sector of the economy by these clauses, and it is for that reason that I have added my name to those of the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, my noble friend Lord Hain, and the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, in asking for these clauses to no longer stand part.
My Lords, I also believe in freedom and in common sense. There are a number of provisions in this group, including the list we have just heard from the noble Lord, Lord Hendy. Now as I understand it, the Government are responding to the National Police Chiefs’ Council’s concerns. The council feels that, in the new world that has been described by others, public order legislation is not any longer appropriate and does not allow them to respond to the sort of disruptive protest tactics being used by some groups today that perhaps would not have been used in the past. I look forward to the Minister’s response, particularly on the issue of noise, which people have highlighted.
I have two questions to add. First, how will these provisions help against Insulate Britain and what its members have been doing? How will the new arrangements work, particularly the developments as regards juries that others have mentioned? Secondly, I know that there have been concerns about the overuse of delegated powers in this part of the Bill. Indeed, there was an excellent debate in the House last week on that very issue, which some noble Lords were present for. What were the recommendations from the DPRRC and Constitution Committee in this area, and can my noble friend explain how they have been met? My understanding is that definitions of “serious disruption” have now been added to the face of the Bill, which was a concern. But does that meet the concern expressed by our committees?
My Lords, I remind noble Lords that this group includes 26 amendments, and that noble Lords are entitled to speak only once on each group, in case people were thinking of having another go. I cannot possibly speak on all 26 amendments; if I spent only one minute on each, I would be here for 26 minutes. But we on these Benches oppose all the measures in Part 3 of the Bill, including the new government amendments introduced late at night in Committee. We will come to those in a later group.
I am a former senior police officer and part of a small, specially selected group of senior police officers trained in the policing of protests. My view, and the view of the majority of police officers interviewed by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services, contrary to what the noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Rolfe, has just said, is that the limiting factor in the policing of protests on the police’s ability to control protests is the number of suitably trained police officers available, not a lack of police powers or legislation.
Not only are new powers and new offences unnecessary but there is a very real danger of dragging the police into political decisions on which protests should go ahead and which should not, as the noble Baroness, Lady Fox of Buckley, has just said. There is a very real danger of more scenes like those we saw at the Sarah Everard vigil on Clapham Common happening with greater frequency. There is a real danger of more and more police officers being drawn into policing protests to enforce more and more restrictions and bans, taking them away from policing their communities and, as a result, further undermining trust and confidence in the police and their ability to enforce the law.
I spoke at length in Committee and do not intend to repeat myself. I refer noble Lords to the Official Report. We support all the non-government amendments in this group. Particularly, we do not agree that protests should be banned because the police think they might be too noisy—so we will be voting in support of Amendment 115.
We agree with the former Conservative Home Secretary who led on the original public order legislation in 1986 that the police should not be able to dictate where and when public meetings or assemblies should take place or to ban them completely. To quote Lord Hurd of Westwell,
“that would be an excessive limit on the right of assembly and freedom of speech.”—[
The Minister may say that the provisions simply bring limitations on assemblies into line with the limitations on processions, but I ask what has changed. It is still an excessive limit on the right of assembly and freedom of speech. I will therefore be testing the opinion of the House on Amendment 132. These measures are an outrageous limitation of people’s fundamental right in a democracy, and we oppose them.
My Lords, I start by quoting the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Bristol, who said that good debate relies on good listening. I hope that noble Lords will listen, as they did in the previous group, to what I have to say.
My noble friend Lord Deben and the noble Lords, Lord Hain and Lord Coaker, were all in agreement that many of them would have been in breach of these provisions in protests that they took part in. No. I disagree with that; the police rarely impose conditions on a protest, and we expect that to continue to be the case.
I thought the noble Lord, Lord Walney, made some compelling arguments about how lucky we are to live in a democracy and how much we value protest—we can hear the drumbeats outside, which no one is going to stop. To answer the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leeds, the provisions are not new today; they have been in the Bill from the start.
The government amendments give effect to the recommendations made by both the DPRRC and the Constitution Committee. Under the Public Order Act 1986 as amended by the Bill, the police may attach certain conditions to a public procession, public assembly or one-person protest, including where that is necessary to prevent serious disruption. The Bill enables the Secretary of State to define the meaning of “serious disruption” in regulations, and we have published an indicative draft of such regulations.
However, both the DPRRC and the Constitution Committee argued that definitions should be in the Bill, although the DPRRC agreed that there should be a power to amend the definition by regulations subject to the affirmative procedure. The government amendments therefore take the definitions as set out in the draft regulations and write them into the Public Order Act. Again, I express my thanks to my noble friend Lord Blencathra—although I do not see him in his place—the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor of Bolton, and the other members of the DPRRC and the Constitution Committee for their scrutiny of the Bill. I trust that the amendments will be acceptable to them and indeed to the House as a whole. The word “significant” is lifted from the draft regulations that the Constitution Committee said were not unreasonable.
Amendment 115, in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, would remove the new noise triggers for the police to impose conditions on public processions. Amendments 123, 124, 125 and 147 would collectively do the same for public assemblies and single-person protests. In response to those amendments, I reiterate to the House that noise generated by protesters can have a significant and detrimental impact on the wider public. It is unacceptable, as my noble friend Lord Hailsham says, that certain protests can seriously disrupt the lives of ordinary people.
It is absolutely right that the Government give the police the tools that they require to tackle disruptive protests. As the noble Lord, Lord Hogan-Howe, stated during the debate in Committee on these measures,
“noise can be more than an irritant.”—[
In some contexts, it can be tortuous, and it is important to contextualise the different situations in which it can happen, such as the time of day or where it takes place. Is it outside an old people’s home, or is it in Parliament Square? Is it anti-vaxxers outside a school, or in St Ann’s Square in Manchester?
It is completely right that the police should have the powers to intervene in exceptional cases where the noise generated by a protest is such that it is injurious to others. As with all conditions, police will only impose conditions on noise where necessary and proportionate and where they have carefully considered protesters’ freedoms of expression and assembly. Of course, they can rightly be challenged in court if they do not. I note that the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, said only last week that, generally speaking, the police are very averse to making political decisions and siding with one particular protest group against another, so that is a significant safeguard. Indeed, it is.
Amendments 132 and 133, in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, would strike out Clauses 57 and 58 from the Bill. In extending the full range of conditions available to the police for safely managing public processions to public assemblies, the Government are acting on the recommendation of Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services, which argues that the challenges of safely policing an assembly are inherently no different from those of policing a procession—a point that has also been made by Chief Constable Harrington, the NPCC public order lead.
Additionally, Clause 58 closes a loophole through which some protesters had been escaping conviction for breaching protest conditions, as the law requires an individual to have knowingly breached conditions to secure a conviction. Clause 58 provides that someone “ought to know” about the conditions, removing the loophole where some protesters deliberately avoid knowledge of the conditions the police have placed on their protests. The inspectorate also expressed support for this proposal in its inspection report on the policing of protests.
The provisions in Clauses 56 to 58 and 62 have been repeatedly and often deliberately mischaracterised by commentators and others. The policing of protests has always involved balancing the rights of protesters with those of the wider public who may be adversely affected by a protest. These measures do not stop noisy protests—far from it. The overwhelming majority of protests will continue, as now, without any conditions being attached, whether in relation to the generation of noise or otherwise. But it is right that, where a protest crosses the line in terms of causing disproportionate harm or disruption to others, the police must have the necessary powers to take effective action. My noble friend Lady Neville-Rolfe talked about some of the problems on trains, the Tube and other places, and we will get on to those later, but these clauses do just that and no more—updating laws that are now more than 35 years old.
We have listened to the concerns raised by noble Lords about the regulation-making powers in these clauses and have amended the Bill accordingly in line with the recommendations from the DPRRC and the Constitution Committee. I ask noble Lords that, with these changes, the House now supports these clauses and rejects Amendment 115.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for her reply and all noble Lords who spoke in the debate. These amendments deal with existing parts of the Bill; we will come to the new clauses that the Government propose in later groups. We have very serious concerns about what the existing clauses, to which I tabled Amendment 115 and which many noble Lords have spoken about this evening, will do to the right to protest. I remind noble Lords, because I am going to seek to test the opinion of the House, that Amendment 115 specifically deals with the Bill’s provisions with respect to noise, which are ridiculous, irrelevant and simply will not work. They will impact on the right to protest. If they will not impact on the right to protest, what is the point of the Government proposing the law in the first place?
With respect to the noble Viscount, Lord Hailsham, and the noble Lord, Lord Deben, if I am right they were Members of Parliament during the Margaret Thatcher and John Major Governments. People will say, “This is a bygone age. What does Lord Hain know about it? He’s talking about things from decades ago.” But what about the noble Lord, Lord Deben, and the noble Viscount, Lord Hailsham? There were riots during the poll tax and the miners’ strike; look at all the protests that went on there, many of which I played a part in, particularly on the poll tax and the miners’ strike—not the riots.
I was not born yesterday.
The noise was massive during the poll tax and the miners’ strike protests. The disruption outside Parliament was absolutely enormous: rattling the gates, banging the drums, stopping this and that. What did Margaret Thatcher do? She did not introduce a noise amendment to the right to protest. I completely and utterly reject the premiership of Margaret Thatcher, but she did not do this, and neither did John Major. What has happened that has caused the Government now to introduce these changes to the right to protest with respect to noise, which previous Prime Ministers did not do in the face of some of the most difficult demonstrations, whatever the rights and wrongs of them? It beggars belief.
I say this to the Minister: if these amendments do not pass and the Bill becomes law, there will be a demonstration on climate change, on the building of a dam or a housing estate, or on some road going through a forest, and the police will put conditions on it with respect to noise and the public will say, “When did this happen? Who passed this? What on earth were they thinking of?” If you ask the public whether they object to disruption, or whether they object to protests with respect to their lives, then of course they will say yes. I moan about demonstrations if I cannot get into Parliament, but it does not mean that they are wrong or that they should not take place.
Protesting is a part of democracy. Of course I do not believe that the Government are some sort of right-wing fascist organisation, but I believe that this particular measure is a fundamental attack on a freedom that the citizens of this country have enjoyed for centuries. As such, I hope the Chamber will support Amendment 115.
Ayes 261, Noes 166.