Moved by Lord Coaker
Leave out from “House” and insert “do insist on its Amendment 73, do disagree with the Commons in their Amendment 74A and propose Amendment 74B to Lords Amendment 74 in lieu and Amendments 74C, 74D, 74E, 74F and 74G as consequential amendments, and do insist on its Amendment 87 and disagree with the Commons in their Amendments 87A, 87B, 87C, 87D, 87E and 87F—
74B: Leave out lines 20 to 26
74C: As an amendment to Lords Amendment 75, leave out “any of subsections (2ZA) to (2ZC)” and insert “subsection (2ZA) or (2ZB)”
74D: As an amendment to Lords Amendment 76, leave out “any” and insert “either”
74E: As an amendment to the Bill, page 47, leave out lines 36 and 37
74F: As an amendment to the Bill, page 47, line 40, leave out “an expression mentioned in subsection 12(a) or (b)” and insert “that expression”
74G: As an amendment to the Bill, page 47, leave out lines 44 and 45
My Lords, first, I join the Minister in her tribute to PC Keith Palmer and in the sentiments she expressed, which will be shared by all of us across this House. As he protected us, he protected our democracy. As ever, we are grateful to PC Palmer for his sacrifice and for the sacrifice of so many others. I am pleased to join the Minister in her tribute.
This is an extremely important group of amendments. I thank the Minister for her thoughtful reply, even though I am going to disagree with some of it. I appreciate the comments she made and the way in which she made them.
This morning, on my walk into Parliament, knowing that we were going to discuss the issue of protests, I went to the gardens next to us and stood next to the tribute to the Pankhursts. I went across into Parliament Square to see Gandhi, Millicent Fawcett and Mandela. I wonder what they would say to us today as we discuss these amendments. I know the Government’s response will be that this is a different time, but that is irrelevant; or that this is an age that has amplifications, as we heard from the Minister, and they were not dealing with that. I suspect that, in their time, the Suffragettes, Mandela, Gandhi and all of those sorts of people were subject to being told that they were too extreme and were going too far.
I say to the Minister that this is a fundamental principle. I say again that I do not believe that the Minister wants to ban protests. I accept that. I am not saying that we have a Government who want to completely ban protests, completely end demonstrations and completely end the right to protest. I do not believe that. What I believe is that the Bill in certain ways undermines certain conditions which have always applied to people’s ability to protest.
The Government have got themselves in a right mess on this, as I will demonstrate, with respect to noise, which is the particular focus of the amendments that I want to point out. Let me quote from the Government’s own website, on thresholds. Our Amendments 73 and 87 would remove the Government’s proposed noise trigger which would allow the police to put conditions on marches or one-person protests that get too noisy. The problem is this: what on earth does too noisy mean? I would not like to debate that. One person’s too noisy is another person’s not noisy enough; some people get irritated by not very much noise and some people get irritated by no noise at all.
I went to the Government’s website for clarification on what too noisy means. When making use of these powers, the website helpfully gives advice for deciding what is too noisy. These are the thresholds that have to be met: who is impacted and how many people, which is fair enough, though it does not define it; who is vulnerable; and the duration of the impact. It very helpfully says that, if it is a short time, it is unlikely to meet the threshold. Presumably even if a protest is too noisy, if it is not for very long it is okay, because it is unlikely to meet the threshold.
The next threshold shows how ridiculous things are. Presumably a Minister has passed this; when I was in the Home Office, a Minister had to sign these things off—somebody has. If a protest is outside a building with double-glazing, it is not likely to have the same impact as if it is outside a building that does not have double-glazing. Double-glazing is a threshold now. If you are organising a demonstration, and if you are going to be noisy, you need to find areas where the buildings have double-glazing—that is what it actually says. I tell you, this will be a good advert for the double-glazing companies. It actually says on the Government’s own website that, if the protest is outside a building with double-glazing, it is not likely to have the same impact.
The serious point I am making is that you can see the problems the Government are having in trying to define what they mean by “too noisy”. As soon as you do that, you disappear down a hole. There is an old phrase, “If you are in a hole stop digging”. The Government are still digging.
“whether the Government are going too far in this respect.”
He does not answer his own question but I think it answers itself. Steve Baker MP said:
“Let us say to the Government that actually this is going too far”. —[
Somebody else made the point that Margaret Thatcher introduced the Public Order Act in 1986, which did not say anything about noise. John Major, following the poll tax protests, did not do anything about noise, and neither did David Cameron or Theresa May. But now we have a situation where being too noisy is regarded as something that it is important for the Government to legislate on.
As far as I am aware, the police have not asked for this power. It puts police officers on the front line in the impossible situation of deciding when a protest is too noisy. How will that be done? If I take part in a protest and think I am obeying the conditions, what happens if a police officer says to me, “You are being too noisy”? Will I be criminalised? How will that work? It is unbelievable. That is the emphasis of the amendment that I have tabled regarding noise. It is just too difficult to say what “too noisy” means, and inappropriate.
I am sure that most of us here have been on demonstrations that have been really noisy—I certainly have. How on earth do you define whether that noise has caused severe alarm, distress or anxiety to other people? I have been outside Parliament making a lot of noise; again, I am sure lots of others have. I know that even under these rules, you will be able to do that, but it will be very difficult.
On government Amendment 74, it is pleasing to see that the Government have responded to the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee, which called on them to define the vague term
“serious disruption to the life of the community” in the Bill rather than through secondary legislation. My Motion E1 accepts Amendment 74, as it focuses on the issue; it is an improvement, however minor, to have a definition of “serious disruption” in the Bill. My Amendment 74B, however, would remove the particularly flawed subsection (2ZC), which provides that noise causes serious disruption.
I am not a drafter of legislation, but the text of the government amendment that I am seeking to get deleted reads as follows:
“For the purposes of subsection (1)(aa), the cases in which the noise generated by persons taking part in a public assembly may result in serious disruption” good luck with what “may” means—
“to the activities of an organisation which are carried on in the vicinity of the assembly include, in particular, where it may result in persons connected” we have two “mays” in two lines—
“with the organisation not being reasonably able” whatever “reasonably able” means—
“for a prolonged” this is adjective after adjective—
“period of time, to carry on in that vicinity the activities or any one of them.”
I know what the Government are trying to do. Ministers in another place have gone back to the Home Office and said, “We are in real trouble on this noise thing. We will have to define it a bit better” and then disappear into “may”, “perhaps” and “it could be”, in the worst possible circumstances. How on earth does a police officer or a senior police officer decide? That is the focus of what I am saying and why it is so important. This legislation is unworkable as well as simply going too far on the conditions to be imposed on any protest.
I could not believe what I read from the Minister in the other place; I would not have said this as a Minister. When the Government, who are now worried about this, were asked about a review, the Minister, Kit Malthouse MP, said:
“I am happy to commit to reviewing the offence.”—[Official Report, Commons, 28/2/22; col. 827.]
So the Government are going to pass this even though they are already worried about it, and they will review it before, or as soon as, they have passed it. They will say, “It is a normal part of government to keep legislation under review.” That may be true, but you do not normally say when passing primary legislation that you expect to review it, unless you are in trouble; that is a Minister in trouble, trying to appease and buy off his Back Benches—so they do not vote against it—by promising a review. The only thing it lacks is the phrase “as soon as possible”. The provisions on noise are unworkable and ridiculous; whatever else the Government do, they should withdraw that part of the Bill.
We strongly support Motion F2 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Paddick. It is crucial to opposing the Government’s noise provisions, as it would support my amendments by removing the proposed noise trigger for public assemblies as well as preventing the further extension of police powers in relation to public assemblies. Obviously, the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, will want to say more on that.
On government Motion G, providing that vehicle access to Parliament should not be blocked, we recognise that this was a recommendation of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, but I have still some concerns about what is proposed. As the Minister said, what is sought is a balance between ensuring that Parliament can function—in particular, so that disabled Members of Parliament, for example, can access the building—and protecting the right to protest. It is crucial that people have the right to protest in front of this building, which is the seat of our democracy. It should ring out from this debate that people will still be able to do that, because it is really important. It is also encouraging, as the Minister outlined, that the GLA has confirmed that the changes will not impact on its ability to authorise protests in Parliament Square as it currently does. In the spirit of reviewing, will the Minister keep that under review, and perhaps review it as soon as possible rather than in due course?
On Motions H and H1, on wilful obstruction of the highway, we supported the Government’s view that an increased sentence was appropriate in cases where people put lives at risk by walking on to motorways and blocking motorway traffic. This House supported an amendment from my noble friend Lord Rosser which would have limited that increased sentence to target motorways, A roads and the strategic roads network. This was to target the higher sentence at what it was designed for, where tactics are downright dangerous, block roads that people cannot easily get off or block the journeys of emergency vehicles. Unfortunately, we did not convince the Government or the House of Commons to accept what we saw as a common-sense change, but we do not believe that a further vote would change that. The noble Baroness, Lady Jones, has tabled Motion H1 to continue to raise her concerns about this power in general, but our focus is now firmly on the noise provisions. I know that she agrees with us on that.
On a positive note, I thank the Minister sincerely and welcome the Government’s concession in government Motion N, on my amendment to stop intimidatory protests outside schools and vaccine centres. We called on the Government throughout the Bill to focus their attention here, where anti-vax protesters were harassing and intimidating pupils and staff or disrupting the provision of medical care, rather than on peaceful protests being a bit noisy. The government amendment accepts what was asked for in my amendment, that authorities are able to respond quickly with an expedited process to put a buffer zone around schools or vaccine centres. We are grateful to the Minister and her Bill team for their work on this and welcome the fact that the Government have listened to what people have said and acted on it. We are very appreciative of that.
However, I go back to what for us is a point of principle; that is, the noise provisions. They are unworkable, will not be used and are simply a step too far for any Government to take. I say again that I do not believe that the Government are against protest; I do not believe that they want to ban that sort of peaceful protest activity. However, as a matter of common sense, to say that a demonstration can be stopped because it will be too noisy is nonsensical in practice and impossible to put into legalese which will work. From the contorted efforts of the Government to appease people like me and many others across this House, we can see the problems they get into with respect to their own definitions in their amendments. I beg to move.
My Lords, I shall speak to my two Motions F1 and H1. I am sure it is no surprise that Green Party policy is a bit more radical than that of other parties—there is a lot of grumbling behind me; I hope it is support, not criticism—and is firmly against crackdowns on protest and the oppressive measures in the Bill against the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities. Personally, I would throw the Bill out; if they were any chance of filibustering it, I would stay here for several days in a row. However, that is not looking likely so, as the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, said, I accept what is happening today but with very bad grace, and I shall probably sit here snarling when we let this through. Incidentally, I am so glad that I am not on the other side of the Chamber with him shouting at me; that must be very distressing. It is great being here behind him.
I think the vast majority of the British public—I would like to think that sometimes I speak for them—agree that a potential ban on noisy protest is ridiculous, and of course we have heard some of the more ridiculous things that the Government have said already. I quite often feel sorry for their Front Bench, who have to come out and speak in favour of some of the stuff that this Government cook up which is clearly ridiculous.
Some of the Bill’s measures will make things more difficult for the police. They already have reputational problems with the general public, and this is going to make it worse for them; if they get tired or annoyed then they are likely to do something that will upset a lot of people, and cases will come to court. That is not good for anyone.
I have noticed a tendency to talk about protesters as if they are not people. My experience of protest, which is probably similar to that of some other noble Lords here, is that protesters are people. You might think they are all hippies and people like that, but they are not; some of them are ratepayers. Some of them earn a living and pay their taxes. People do not approve of crackdowns on protest because there are times when they themselves want to protest. They want to protest about a crossing that is in the wrong place on their own road or to complain about cars idling outside their children’s school. People protest. It is all very well to call them “protesters” but actually they are just people.
On the obstruction of the highway, I do not like the Commons amendment. I am not persuaded by the fact that there was a huge majority in the other place supporting the Government on it, because what else can you expect with an 80-plus majority? I do not like the original Lords amendment either because I think it was an absolute blunder. Obstructing the highway should not land anyone in prison for a year. There is a point here about how you can still be put into prison for a year even if the roads have already been closed by a traffic authority. When roads in Sheffield, sometimes quite minor ones, were closed for trees to be cut down, local people who were furious about that and were doing their best to stop it protested on those closed roads. Under the Bill, they could have faced up to 51 weeks in prison for protesting on their own road to try to protect their own trees. Peaceful protesters should never face jail. The original amendment was bad and the compromise is also bad.
We had the opportunity to throw this out completely but, sadly, the usual channels made it impossible to do so. If I thought I could convince enough people like the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, then I would push the Motion to a vote, but I did not even have enough voices to get a proper vote on Report so I will stick to sulking over here.
Still, the Government have badly misunderstood what the British public think about protest. Protest is something that we accept as part of our democracy. In other Bills, such as the Elections Bill, the Government are suppressing democracy, and here they are suppressing democracy again. I am devastated that we are allowing the Bill through.
My Lords, I will speak to my Motion F2 and the other amendments in this group. I start by joining the Minister in paying tribute to the selfless actions of PC Keith Palmer, who tragically died five years ago today.
I apologise for the length of my remarks, but there are numerous important issues contained in this group. I promise not to spend an average of more than two minutes on each Motion. There are few subjects on which I am an expert, but the policing of public order is one. I was one of a small cadre of advanced trained public order senior officers, and I have extensive experience of policing events. I remind the House that the majority of police forces outside London told HMICFRS that they did not need new public order legislation, and that the limiting factor in policing protests was the number of public-order-trained police officers they had to police protests. A whistleblower who worked for HMICFRS said that the conclusions in its review of public order policing did not reflect the evidence that the inspectorate had gathered. Having read the report in full, I agree. There is no justification for more public order legislation.
In relation to Motion E, the police already have powers to impose any conditions necessary—including an outright ban—on public processions, if a senior police officer reasonably believes that it will result in serious public disorder, serious damage to property or serious disruption to the life of the community, or if the purpose is to intimidate others. Adding a noise trigger to those powers will do more harm than good. As I said in Committee, from my experience, the more conditions you impose on a procession, the more likely those conditions are to be resisted and, therefore, the more police officers you will need to enforce them. As I have said, police forces already say that they do not have enough public-order-trained police officers.
A peaceful protest with no anticipated violent infiltrators and an agreed route—however large—can be policed with a minimum number of police officers and a lot of traffic cones and miles of white tape. Imposing conditions which the organisers are resisting is likely to require between double and five times the number of police officers. This is because confrontation must be anticipated, and the conditions may have to be imposed by force—such as a march wanting to take a different route. An outright ban on a protest, as well as being unlikely to be successful—as we saw with the Sarah Everard vigil on Clapham Common—requires about 10 times as many police officers as are required for a compliant, peaceful demonstration. How many police officers would it have taken to police the Sarah Everard vigil, in the middle of a common, if there had been agreement between the police and the organisers? The more conditions which can be imposed, and the more draconian those conditions, the bigger the drain will be on already overstretched police resources.
The second issue is the impact on trust and confidence in the police, as the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, has just said. The impact of the policing of the Sarah Everard vigil was hugely negative, and the government proposals will simply increase the potential for, and frequency of, such scenes. By banning some demonstrations on the basis of anticipated noise, and not others, the police will be subjected to accusations that they are being political rather than practical. They will be accused of being selective about which protests can take place for political reasons—such as banning demonstrations against war, as they are likely to be enormous and noisy, but allowing demonstrations in favour of war to go ahead, as they are not likely to be very well supported, to take a Russian example. Such a change in the law is likely to draw the police reputation into even more disrepute. In addition, I ask how many times the business of this House or the other place has been disrupted because of noise by protestors. I suggest none —and I do not believe that the House has double glazing. In any event, the police can always divert disruptive demonstrations away from sensitive areas. This change—the noise trigger—is unnecessary and damaging, and we will be voting to support the Labour amendments.
Motion F is about maintaining the current position, where the police can impose conditions on those holding an assembly, a static protest or a meeting but cannot ban it altogether. The Government argue that their proposals simply bring assemblies into line with the powers that the police have in relation to processions, but there are very good reasons why the two should be treated differently.
As I said in Committee, on
“We stopped short of a power to ban” assemblies
“because we believed that that would be an excessive limit on the right of assembly and freedom of speech. For this reason, clause 14 does not permit the police to impose conditions changing the date and time of an assembly.”—[
We agree, and the effect of my amendment is to achieve the same result.
Already, if a senior police officer reasonably believes that an assembly may result in serious public disorder, serious damage to property or serious disruption to the life of a community, or that the purpose of the assembly is to intimidate others, he or she can, under existing legislation, impose conditions on where the assembly takes place; tell an existing assembly to move somewhere else; limit how long it goes on for; and/or limit the numbers attending. The wording of my Amendment 80G in Motion F2 is different from simply insisting on the amendment we made to remove the new provision proposed by the Government on Report —as Motion F1 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, does—but the effect is the same.
The only thing the police cannot do under existing legislation is to ban a static protest altogether. The police already have all the tools they need to deal with unlawful assemblies, but to give the police the power to stop people protesting at all smacks of Putin’s Russia, not the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. I will seek the opinion of the House on Amendment 80G in Motion F2.
On Motion G, we share the concerns of others that all large demonstrations that have the potential to spill over into the road and, either by accident or design, impede vehicular access to Parliament could be banned even when Parliament is not sitting. We believe that this is legislative overreach, relying as it does on the discretion of the police to enforce it or not. However, we do not agree that the police should be able to give permission to allow entrances to Parliament to be blocked when Parliament is in session, so we do not insist on Lords Amendment 82.
On Motion H, we share the concerns of others that those who engage in peaceful sit-down protests, however short the duration, should face the potential penalty of imprisonment for highway obstruction where previously they could have been only fined. As we saw with the Insulate Britain protests, existing legislation, including the application for and enforcement of injunctions, can be successfully used to deal with persistent offenders, including imprisonment for those who breach injunctions. However, with the undertaking given by the Minister at the Dispatch Box that imprisonment is intended to be used only in the most egregious cases, we hope that this increased penalty does not have the chilling effect it may otherwise have done on peaceful protest.
On Motion N, we are grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, for raising the issue and for the Government’s response.
My Lords, I regret that we heard the Home Secretary and now the Minister accept the principle of the Opposition’s fast-track public space protection orders in relation to Motion H and use that to justify broader anti-protest amendments as a balance in protecting non-protesters. I regret it but I am not surprised. The danger of advocating any measures that strengthen anti-protest measures is that it sets a tone that suggests that some protesters are good and some are bad, which politicises a general and universal right that I think we should defend. Putting that to one side, I want to oppose the Government’s doubling-down on a noise trigger and follow on particularly from the remarks made by the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, and others who have expressed their opposition so well.
I want to nod to the democratic dilemma of this ping-pong and whether we are actually blocking democracy. When summing up the rejection of the second tranche of anti-protest amendments on Report, the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, chided all of us who opposed them for ignoring the public’s demand that authorities deal with new forms of protest activities such as those we have seen used by Extinction Rebellion and its offspring, such as Insulate Britain.
I disagreed that those amendments would have dealt with those new forms of protest. I thought they were so broad as to sweep up all and any protests, including anyone who might have wanted to protest against net zero, to take an example of a different political side. The state also already has huge powers, whether the Emergency Workers (Obstruction) Act or the Public Order Act, as we have heard, that could have been used to deal with these forms of protest which are a particular nuisance, as the public would have it. Despite that, I felt the Government were at least responding to a particular form of protest about which there has been some public agitation and concern. Therefore, that chiding was listened to.
But now, here we are with government amendments on protest that bear absolutely no relation to the Home Office’s motivation on new forms of protest. I do not think the Government have a democratic mandate for these amendments. Fundamental and foundational democratic rights, such as the right to assemble or protest or the right to free speech, should be protected by an iron curtain. If there is any attempt to undermine them, the presumption must rest with the Government to justify in absolutely clear terms, with a sense of the absolutely exceptional reasons for the proposed changes, any more draconian measures being brought in.
It just does not add up. As I have noticed before, even these new types of protest that apparently upset the public are often silent, so the noise trigger does not apply to them in any way whatever. The authorities should consider proposing accruing further power when limiting the right to assembly, and ultimately the right to free speech, only ever in exceptional circumstances. In this instance, those exceptional circumstances are just not there.
Even more galling is the smoke and mirrors of posing these proposals as protecting the public from the consequences of protest. The public are described as “non-protesters”; as I think the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, pointed out, this turns the public into two different groups of people, but actually the public are the people who go on protests. They might not go on all of them all the time, but it is their right as the public that we are talking about. There is an Alice in Wonderland approach here that gets the issues upside-down and implies that the Government are far removed from the reality that free protests have been crucial for the public over centuries. The denial of that right, whether in Putin’s Russia or China’s Hong Kong, should be a visceral reminder to us here of why protest —warts and all—matters.
Of course not all protests are popular. Many of the modern protests I have mentioned, such as those by Extinction Rebellion, I do not support and they irritate me but, as with all fundamental democratic rights—free speech, free association and so on—it does not matter whether they are annoying, unpleasant or objectionable, or even if those demonstrations are directed in a hostile way against what you believe to be true.
We cannot pick and choose which speech or which protest we agree with and then endorse only the ones that we like. We have to make sure that we do not let those kinds of political prejudices get in the way. We are bound to feel uncomfortable at times when people protest for things that we disagree with, but that is freedom for you. It has never been claimed that living in a free society is safe and cosy. It is designed to make you, on occasion, feel uncomfortable. But there are principles here. As the Court of Appeal notes:
“The right to protest becomes effectively worthless if the protesters’ choice of ‘when and where’ to protest is not respected as far as possible”, and I stand by that.
Finally, we should, if anything, be doing something in this House to facilitate civil society having the freedom to stand up to power. We should not only encourage the public to have their right to be heard protected loudly but encourage voters to actively engage in extra-parliamentary activity and to shout as loudly as possible about what concerns them, because that way we will get to actually hear some of that public debate. It is also a safety valve for democracy. If, on occasion, that causes inconvenience or annoyance or is too loud, we will survive, and democracy will be better for it.
I will finish with a quote from a participant from the Citizens’ Assembly on Democracy, because it sums up what is at stake: “When civil society or minority groups or opinions are ignored by politicians, it is the British way to assemble or march with an exuberant voice, carrying placards and symbols of protest. Peaceful protest sheds light on the mood of the nation and informs the elected representatives”—and, dare I say, the unelected representatives—“of the strength of opinion residing outside their bubble or chosen focus group.” I say “hear, hear” to that, and gladly.
My Lords, ever since this Bill began its progress through your Lordships’ House, I have struggled to understand why the source of noise seems to make a difference.
I am lucky to live in a large, busy and somewhat noisy city. Last week one of our local Jewish communities, which I live at the heart of, celebrated Purim, and it celebrated it noisily. I live close to Salford City football ground. I have a season ticket and go to watch matches there. But I would not need to be in the ground to know the score; I could tell from the noise that emerges from it. I am well within earshot of the annual Parklife festival in Heaton Park in north Manchester, which brings countless people from all over the country and beyond to have a fun weekend. I struggle to see why a night of noise from a religious festival or a weekend of noise from a pop concert is somehow acceptable, but noise from a protest for a night or a weekend somehow is not. If noise is a nuisance, it is a nuisance. The fact that it is generated by protests and not by pop music seems entirely irrelevant.
I take great comfort from what the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, said earlier. I have double glazing, so perhaps nothing at all is a nuisance to me; but not all my neighbours in Salford are quite so lucky. Unless the Minister can give me some clarity as to why the source of the noise make such a substantial difference that we have to legislate against it, I will be supporting the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, and others this afternoon.
My Lords, I suggest that noble Lords may want to follow Sheffield Wednesday because, if you lived anywhere near the ground, you would never be disturbed by much noise from the team scoring.
I support the right to protest. What I am about to say may leave people thinking that I do not, but I genuinely do. I say that as somebody who, like the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, has been a gold commander for public order events with tens of thousands of people—hundreds of thousands on occasion. Sometimes people in London imagine that the only protests that happen are with the Metropolitan Police leading them, but of course other forces have to deal with similar challenges an awful lot of the time.
There are different types of protest, but we seem to have started to talk about the only types of protest being the ones that happen in Whitehall, which we all regularly see and hear and which we have the most experience of, but they are not the only types of protest that happen around the country. I want to say a few words about those types of protest, and why I broadly support the Government’s idea to look at why noise can be a problem. Noise can be threatening and intimidating, it can be a nuisance and it can damage health. Surely the test of whether or not noise is okay is whether somebody of reasonable firmness—not somebody who is particularly sensitive—can withstand it. In certain circumstances we would all be very prone to being damaged by noise. Imagine a family who had someone who was terminally ill. Some of us who can cope with noise most of the time cannot cope with it all the time. So I think there is a test that can be applied, and the police would be quite able to apply it.
There is another example, I would suggest, of something that is lawful generally but when done too much can be a crime: picketing. That may have been contentious in the past, but people have engaged in it as part of a trade union dispute. However, it was made illegal, some time ago now, to gather in such a large number that it would intimidate people and prevent them working or doing other things that were reasonable. Picketing is therefore lawful, but not if it is done in such numbers and is causing such damage that it would cause normal people to be worried that they could not carry on with their normal lives.
The question that is not really addressed by those who object to the Government’s proposal is: is it always okay for protesters to cause noise nuisance, even if somebody is unreasonably damaged by that noise? If it is outside your home or your business, and it is day after week after month, is that okay? If not, how are you going to deal with it? I have not heard any proposals for doing that. Of course, it is okay in Whitehall, but it is not okay if it is at your home. We have had examples where people have had complaints and protests against them at their home or business repeatedly and frequently. We have to at least consider this when scrutinising this legislation. It is important to them, even if some people do not think it is important in general.
A question was raised as to whether police officers could assess whether noise “may” cause damage. That is a reasonable question, but, of course, police officers do this type of thing every day. They have to decide whether a breach of the peace is likely, and they might make an arrest or make an intervention around threatening behaviour. Whether something may happen is one of the things that they have to decide. They are just normal people who have to make a reasonable assessment. I do not worry about them too much on those grounds: they make that sort of decision every day and I suspect that they can carry on making it even if this was to be made further legislation.
There was a question about whether the police could intervene in a particular protest if there were tens of thousands of people involved and they were causing lots of noise. Could the police intervene and do they have enough staff? That is a fair question, but, of course, they do not have to intervene on that day. Perhaps it is impossible to intervene, but they can use that as evidence to decide whether to impose a condition in the future. That is one of the reasons why we have law: to decide whether you are able to impose conditions, what the reasons are for the conditions, and whether you can gather enough evidence to say that your “may” is a reasonable test. Therefore, it may not be on the first occasion that the protest happens, but it may be on the subsequent one, which, if noble Lords accept my argument, is something that at least has to be considered if there are repeated protests causing excessive noise for people, making it difficult for them to enjoy their lives.
I understand why people complain about this government proposal, but I honestly think that the people who oppose it have not yet addressed how they would deal with the problem if it was their home, their parents or their business. How do they intend to stop the noise, which can be so damaging to life? That is the question I would ask but, broadly, I support the Government’s proposal.
My Lords, I commend my noble friend for all the hard work that she has done on this Bill and for accepting a number of the amendments, as well as the Government’s own amendments which she has brought forward, having listened carefully to the debates in this House and in the other place.
I do not believe for a moment that my noble friend or her colleagues on the Front Bench would intend to ban peaceful protest, but Part 3 of the Bill seems to be straying towards authoritarianism. We see at the moment how democracy is fragile and how important it is to protect it. This House is challenging what looks like an attempt to undermine the democratic right to protest, with what could be disproportionate criminalisation of peaceful protest.
Demonstrations must almost always be noisy. The demonstrators want their voices heard—that is the point of the protest. As I understand it, the Joint Committee on Human Rights confirms that the police already have powers to stop extreme and disruptive protests. If there is enough power already, I am not clear how, in practice, as the noble Lords, Lord Coaker and Lord Paddick, explained, the police would be able to assess how to implement this legislation. It may well be an unwise hostage to fortune that could be used for repression of unwanted opposition. As we are passing primary legislation which will outlast the current Administration—and who knows what the future holds?—I urge my noble friend to listen carefully to what has been said this afternoon about the vagueness of the word “noisy”.
My Lords, I was not going to add to the argument, but—and I do not want to depress the noble Lord, Lord Coaker—I have never been on a demonstration. At least, I have not been on a demonstration that was protesting against something. I have been on two marches that were very noisy and were accompanied by bands and so on, and which were protests for something. On the definitions of these things, I would love to know whether we are talking about protest, which is assumed to be against something, or a call for something, which is entirely positive. If the phenomenon is the same, what are we faffing around with this for? I just do not understand. I also got arrested for busking, which could be related to noise but I was only 20 and it was on the Paris metro, so it does not count. But being serious, I do not understand why the Government are pushing this when there is no call for it and it is unlikely to achieve anything because the definition is so vague.
My Lords, my objection to the noise provisions, in addition to the points made by the noble Lords, Lord Coaker and Lord Paddick, is the complete uncertainty of the concepts the Government wish to introduce into legislation. What level of noise is unacceptable, what level of disruption is unacceptable, and how will the organisers of a protest control the noise generated by the people demonstrating? What are they supposed to do in these circumstances? Enacting legislation of this sort will inevitably cause problems for the police, raise expectations that cannot be met and—I declare my interest as a practising barrister—undoubtedly lead to prolonged and expensive litigation that will result in the conditions being overturned.
My Lords, on the first Sunday after the invasion of Ukraine, I joined the protestors in Trafalgar Square. They were peaceful but noisy. It may well be that there were some minor oligarchs—maybe even friends of the Prime Minister—living in those new and very expensive penthouses overlooking the square, and I would like to think that they were annoyed. Unfortunately, I suspect that they have double glazing. However, the right to protest and to cause a degree of annoyance to a few people is surely something that Ukrainians would be amazed we were even thinking of curtailing.
I absolutely believe the Minister when she says that the Government have no intention of curbing that right, but this will be on the statute book if we allow it to go through, and not every Government might be quite as benevolent as the one we are currently living with. For that reason alone, we should absolutely support the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Coaker. It is extraordinary that we are even contemplating this. It is like the Elections Bill. These are clauses which we are promised will be used in only the most innocuous of fashions. However, they give power to future Administrations to do things that none of us in this Chamber, or indeed at the other end, would like to see happen. For that reason alone, we should just say no—and what is more, we should say no time after time.
My Lords, in addition to the objections to Motion F that have already been made, I have particular one. I made it earlier in the proceedings on the Bill, and it is the one the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, made a moment ago. It concerns the right to picket. Part 3 deals with demonstrations and freedom of expression generally. The provision that is sought to be reintroduced to the Bill will affect all those things, but will also affect the right to picket
“in contemplation or furtherance of a trade dispute”.
The right to picket is not only protected by Article 10 of the European Convention, concerning freedom of expression, but by Article 11, which protects freedom of association and the right to be a member of a trade union for the purposes of protecting one’s interests. It is a right that has been highly regulated in English and Welsh law for more than 100 years, beginning with the Conspiracy, and Protection of Property Act 1875, which, I point out for the benefit of the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, prohibits pickets picketing domestic houses. The restrictions on the right to picket in English legislation are reiterated in Section 220 of the Trade Unions and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992, which nevertheless preserves the right to picket in contemplation or furtherance of a trade dispute, but imposes restrictions on it by way, among other things, of a code of practice which extends over 19 pages. In 2016, Parliament sought to increase the number of restrictions on picketing by way of the Trade Union Act.
My submission is a simple one: the right to picket industrially is already sufficiently protected and should be excluded from any restrictions. I accept the justification for excluding all restrictions on the right to demonstrate as set out in the Bill, but if there are to be restrictions, the right to picket should have some exemption. I recall that in Committee, the Minister thought there was some substance to that argument because she introduced an amendment on, I think, blocking strategic highways which contained a particular protection for those engaged in a trade dispute.
If anybody doubts that this will affect picketing, one has only to look at Amendment 80A. It inserts a new subsection (2ZA), which refers to actions that
“may result in a significant delay to the supply of a time-sensitive product … or … may result in a prolonged disruption of access to any essential goods or any essential service, including, in particular, access to … the supply of money, food, water, energy or fuel … a system of communication … a place of worship … a transport facility … an educational institution, or … a service relating to health.”
I remind noble Lords that “a transport facility” will of course include P&O ships. If this provision is enacted, and if RMT and Nautilus International invite pickets to stand at Dover docks to discourage workers from taking their place, or other workers from refuelling or revictualling vessels or discharging cargo, they will not only be subject to all the existing picketing restrictions under UK legislation, but they will be bound not to be noisy. I therefore support the amendment of my noble friend Lord Coaker.
My Lords, before we vote on this Motion, I invite Members to consider what the history of our country would have been like if the laws that the Government are proposing had been in place at the time. We are very proud of the development of parliamentary democracy in this country, but I can think of major occasions in the past when major change took place which was quite right and very noisy. Do you think that the Chartist demonstration that took place two miles from here at Kennington was noiseless? Were the suffragettes and suffragists who waged the campaign to give women the right to vote somehow noiseless? They were noisy. Do you think that the poll tax demonstrations were noiseless? They were noisy, and the Government of the day finally realised that it was a mistaken policy. I modestly mention to your Lordships that this legislation will unleash terrible trouble in the future. I do not know what kind or when, and I am not a barrister so I will not benefit personally from any of the legal cases that will arise, but it will cause trouble and it should not be passed.
My Lords, I cannot see anyone trying to get up. If they are doing, they are probably behind me; do not encourage them. I thank all noble Lords who have taken part in this debate. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, that we always keep all legislation under review. The Minister in the other place, in saying that, was not saying anything unusual.
I am glad that I give the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, the opportunity to vent at every piece of legislation that I bring into this House, because we are friends and I feel that it is some form of therapy for her. I do not know why she was picking out the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, for not supporting her, but that is probably a side issue that I do not know anything about. She talked about reading the public mood, and I will get on to that and the facts behind the public mood shortly; I warn her that she will not like it. About Putin’s Russia, or indeed Ukraine, I do not want to make a cheap point but I see the point about democracy. The people of Ukraine or Russia will look at this Parliament and realise how very lucky we are that we can not only argue but shout at each other and the majority wins. Noble Lords will be particularly pleased because there is generally a majority against the Government in this place.
Amendments 143A to 143C provide for the expedited public spaces protection orders. I am glad that they find favour with the noble Lord, Lord Coaker. In doing so, clearly he makes the distinction between noise generally, noisy protests and noise that is injurious to others, as evidenced by his amendments.
I welcome the noble Lord’s acceptance of the decision taken by the other place in relation to the increase in the maximum penalty for the offence of obstructing a highway as reflected in Amendment 88A. I am sorry that the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, takes a different view, but I hope she will not press Motion H1, given that the courts are able to take into account the level of disruption when sentencing for this offence.
I know the noble Viscount, Lord Colville, is not in his place, but I want to make the point that we have had a very constructive discussion on Amendments 81 and 82. I hope that he will have heard it remotely. Like him, we want to monitor carefully the impact of Clause 58 to ensure that it does not have the unintended consequences of inhibiting large protests in the vicinity of Parliament. I was particularly struck by our conversation: when I was coming into Parliament on my bike this morning—I know noble Lords are very impressed—there was an ambulance trying to get into Parliament, and it kind of illustrated the point for me.
Amendments 73, 80 and 87 relate to the powers of the police—not the Government or the Secretary of State—to attach conditions to protests, including, in particular, in relation to the generation of noise. I know that noble Lords continue to have concerns about these provisions, and I hear that in the House today. I think they are unfounded, and I say again that the provisions do not ban noisy protests; the overwhelming majority of protests will be unaffected by these provisions. But are noble Lords really saying that any amount of noise, in any situation, at any time and for any length of time, is acceptable if it is generated by protestors? The amendments of the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, clearly demonstrate that it is not. The Government do not subscribe to this view and nor does the majority of the British public. Back to the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb: we have seen in a recent YouGov poll that 53% of respondents supported giving senior police officers powers to set noise limits on protests, compared to just 33% of respondents opposing the measure.
As I said in my opening remarks, the elected House has now endorsed the noise-related measures on two separate occasions during the passage of this Bill. They have the support of the British public that they should now be allowed to pass. I invite the House to reject Motion E1.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for her reply and all noble Lords who have responded to the debate on my amendment. I do not want to detain the House because there is a lot of other business to pursue. Let me just say that the noise provision is the one we really object to. I think that, if it is passed, in a year or two years, a senior police officer will restrict a demonstration on the basis of noise. The Minister has prayed in aid public opinion in her favour. The public will ask who on earth passed legislation that means they cannot demonstrate in a democracy in their own country—who allowed that to happen? It will be this Parliament, and for that reason I press Motion E1.
Ayes 208, Noes 166.