I now turn to the detail of clauses 54, 55, 56 and 60, which all relate to the conditions that the police can place on public processions, public assemblies and, by virtue of clause 60, single-person protests.
The police are able to place conditions on planned or ongoing protests to prevent serious public disorder, serious damage to property or serious disruption to the life of the community. Conditions may also be imposed on a protest if the purpose of the person organising it is the intimidation of others in order to compel them to do or not to do an act that they have the right to do or not to do. The four clauses will ensure that the police are better placed to prevent protests that cause those harms. They will achieve that in the following ways.
Clause 55 will widen the range of conditions that the police can impose on public assemblies, to match existing powers to impose conditions on public processions. Clause 56 will prevent protesters from exploiting a loophole to evade conviction should they breach conditions at a protest and will increase sentences for such offences. Clauses 54, 55 and 60 will enable the police to impose conditions on a public procession, public assembly or single-person protest where noise may have a significant impact on those in the vicinity or may result in serious disruption to the activities of an organisation. These same clauses will also confer on the Home Secretary the power, through secondary legislation, to define the meaning of
“serious disruption to the life of the community” and
“serious disruption to the activities of an organisation which are carried out in the vicinity of a public procession”, assembly or single-person protest.
It appears that some of the Bill’s provisions intersect with the Welsh Government’s responsibilities. For example, the responsibility for public order is reserved to the UK Parliament, while the provisions relating to noise generated by persons taking part in a procession look set to overlap with the devolved Government’s responsibilities for environmental health. How have the Government addressed those particular concerns, and have they been resolved?
I will explain again. As Dr Robert Jones of the University of South Wales points out, the Welsh Government have responsibilities that seem to overlap with provisions in the Bill; their environmental health responsibility on noise is a particular case in point. The Bill says that demonstrations should not be noisy if they cause alarm and so on, but the Welsh Government have those sorts of responsibilities as well. How have those overlapping responsibilities been addressed and how have they been resolved?
I will not pursue this matter further, but is it not clear that the Welsh Government have responsibilities on an environmental basis for noise reduction?
I cannot add to what I said earlier. These are all reserved matters.
I move on to public assemblies. I will explain why it is necessary for the police to be able to place the same conditions on public assemblies as they can on public processions. The case for the changes in clause 55 was made by Her Majesty’s inspector Matt Parr in his report on policing protest, published in March. The report included the following observation:
“there have been some conspicuously disruptive protests in recent years, both static (assemblies) and moving (processions). Protests are fluid, and it is not always possible to make this distinction. Some begin as assemblies and become processions, and vice versa. The practical challenges of safely policing a protest are not necessarily greater in the case of processions than in the case of assemblies, so this would not justify making a wider range of conditions available for processions than for assemblies.”
It is clear that the challenges of safely policing a protest are not necessarily greater for processions than they are for assemblies. The clause will therefore enable the police to impose conditions such as start times on public assemblies, and prevent excessive noise levels.
Does the Minister agree that, contrary to what the Opposition say, the measures are about facilitating peaceful protest, not stopping protest? Obviously, if a protest breaches other people’s right to carry out their normal lives, that is different, but this is about making sure that protests can take place.
Very much so. This is about ensuring that the rights that we have spoken about so far are protected, and that the integral balance of the social contract is maintained. My right hon. Friend is absolutely right.
The police already have the power to impose any necessary conditions on marches. If it is acceptable for the police to impose any such conditions on processions, as they have been able to do since the 1930s, it is difficult to see the basis for the Opposition’s objection to affording equivalent powers to impose conditions on an assembly when it presents an equivalent public order risk.
In his evidence, Chief Constable Harrington said words to this effect—my apologies to Hansard: “We asked for consistency between processions and assembly, which this Bill does.” The police will impose those conditions only where they are necessary and proportionate, complying with their obligations under the Human Rights Act 1998. In fairness, Chief Constable Harrington set out the care and training that the police receive to ensure that they can carry out their obligations carefully.
Clause 56 closes the loophole in the offence of failing to comply with a condition attached to a procession or assembly. When the police impose conditions on a protest to prevent serious public disorder, serious damage to property or serious disruption to the life of the community, they ensure that protesters are made aware of those conditions through various means. Those can include communicating with protesters via loudspeakers or handing out written leaflets.
Some protesters take active measures, such as covering their ears and tearing up leaflets without reading them, to ensure that they are not aware—or to complain that they were not aware—of the conditions being placed. Should they go on to breach the conditions, they will avoid conviction as, under current law, an offence is committed only if a protester knowingly fails to comply with the condition.
Clause 56 will change the threshold for the offence to include where a protester ought to have known of the conditions imposed, closing the loophole in the current law. That is a commonly used fault element in criminal law—indeed, I note that the hon. Members for Stockton North and for Rotherham use it in new clause 23, which provides for a new street harassment offence. The police will continue to ensure that protesters are made aware of the conditions, as they currently do. The onus on the prosecution would change from having to show that an individual was fully aware of conditions, to showing that the police took all reasonable steps to notify them. As I said earlier, the standards and burdens of proof apply, as they do in any other criminal case: it is for the Crown to prove the case beyond reasonable doubt.
This particular proposal was examined by the policing inspectorate and it is again worth quoting from its report in March. It said:
“Our view is that the fault element in sections 12(4) and (5) and sections 14(4) and (5) of the Public Order Act 1986 is currently set too high. The loophole in the current law could be closed with a slight shift in the legal test that is applied to whether protesters should have known about the conditions imposed on them. On balance, we see no good reason not to close this loophole.”
The clause will also increase the maximum penalties for offences under sections 12 and 14 of the Public Order Act 1986.
Due to the increasingly disruptive tactics used by protesters, existing sentences are no longer proportionate to the harm that can be caused. Organisers of public processions and assemblies who go on to breach conditions placed by the police, as well as individuals who incite others to breach conditions, will see maximum custodial sentences increase from three to six months. Others who breach conditions will see maximum penalties increase from level 3 to level 4 on the standard scale, which are respectively set at £1,000 and £2,500.
Can the Minister give an example of an occasion when the current sentence has not been proportionate, in her opinion? Is she looking at custodial sentences and considering the impact they would have on the courts and on the Prison Service?
The custodial aspect has been increased from three months to six months in relation to organisers of public processions and assemblies who go on to breach conditions, as well as those who incite others to breach conditions. The sentence in relation to the fine is for those who breach conditions. They go in a different category from organisers and those who incite others to breach conditions.
I do not have any examples to hand immediately, but I imagine some will find themselves in my file in due course. We are looking at maximum sentences, but it is still for the independent judiciary to impose sentences in court on the facts of the case that they have before them. That is another safeguard and another check and balance within this legislation. It will be for the judiciary to impose individual sentences, but it is right that Parliament look at the maximum term.
Again, I point to the disruption and to the tactics that have been developing over recent years, which have grown not just more disruptive but, in some cases, more distressing. There are examples of an ambulance being blocked from an A&E department and of commuters being prevented from getting on the train to go to work in the morning by people who had attempted to climb on to the train carriage. We are seeing more and more of these instances, so it is right that the maximum sentence is commensurate.
If protesters feel that such measures are disproportionate, they will presumably put that defence forward in court. It will be for the Crown to prove its case beyond reasonable doubt and for their counsel to mitigate on their behalf. We are trying to show the seriousness with which we take these small instances, where the balance between the rights of protesters and the rights of the community that is not protesting is disproportionate within the checks and balances that we have already discussed in the course of this debate.
I turn now to the measures relating to noise. The provisions will broaden the range of circumstances in which the police may impose conditions on a public procession or a public assembly to include circumstances where noise may have a significant impact on those in the vicinity, or may result in serious disruption to the activities of an organisation. These circumstances will also apply to single-person protests.
The hon. Member for Rotherham asked whether the noise provision was London-centric, with the biggest protests happening in London. As I said earlier, one would not want to assume that some of the protests that we have seen on the news could not happen outside London, as with the “Kill the Bill” protests in Bristol. It is right that we have clarity and consistency in law across the country so that if a group of protesters behaved in the way people appear to have behaved in the Bristol protests—injuring many, many police officers who were just acting in the line of duty—one would expect the law to apply as clearly in Rotherham as in central London.
I thank the Minister for her clarity on that. I completely support her point when violence is being done or emergency services are being blocked and the disruption is in no way proportionate to the nature of the protest, but I would like her to give some clarity on the issue of noise. Is it a decibel thing? Is it an irritation thing? Who decides what the irritation is? What is and is not acceptable? Would the threshold be lower in a small village because noise would not normally be heard, whereas in a big city with lots of industrial sites it would be a lot higher? It is that subjectivity that I put to the Minister.
That is precisely why we are introducing an objective test in clause 54(3). The hon. Lady will see the wording:
“For the purposes of subsection (1)(ab)(i), the noise generated by persons taking part in a public procession may have a relevant impact on persons in the vicinity of the procession if—
(a) it may result in the intimidation or harassment of persons of reasonable firmness with the characteristics of persons likely to be in the vicinity.”
That is consistent with other parts of the criminal law. The wording continues:
“or (b) it may cause such persons”–– that is, persons of reasonable firmness––
“to suffer serious unease, alarm or distress.”
We have been very mindful of trying to help the police because it would be a matter for the police to weigh up during a procession, assembly or one-person protest or before one starts. It would be for the senior officer to make that assessment, but it is an objective test.
I hope that the hon. Lady will not mind my raising it, but the example she gave of the impact that hearing a drill had on her personally was her personal, subjective experience; we are saying that this would have to be an objective test—the reasonable firmness of people in the vicinity of that noise.
Let me give an example that I am sure everyone in this room will have experience of, as I have. An MP might be speaking at a demo or rally and a group of people feel the need to say, “See you next Tuesday” during the speech. That distresses the church group being addressed. Would that reach the threshold? Is it more of a decibel thing rather than it being directed to the MP? For example, in Rotherham the community came together to hold peaceful vigils but the far right held counter-protests in which they felt the need to call us paedophiles.
I appreciate that I am being annoying on this, but I just do not get it. These particular cases feel subjective and that is why I would like to get the clarity bedded down.
First and foremost, the hon. Lady is certainly not being annoying; she is doing her job and her duty on the Committee. I am feeling my way here carefully because obviously Ministers should not comment on individual cases, but, on her example, in a scenario where someone is being at shouted at or spoken to as she described, there is a very good argument for saying that the person doing the shouting is committing a public order offence under the 1986 Act—that could be a section 5 offence of causing harassment, alarm or distress at the moment.
Again, I read across to other parts of public order legislation. That is why the objective test is an important one. We want first to be consistent with other public order measures. However, we recognise that there may be some instances in which an individual, for whatever reason—medical or otherwise—may have a particular sensitivity. In the criminal law, we say, “Look, we have got to deal with this on an objective basis, because it is the criminal law and the consequences of being convicted of a criminal offence are as serious as they are.” I have some hypothetical examples to give a bit of colour in due course, but, if I may, I want to complete outlining the checks and balances as written in the Bill so that everyone has a clear picture of the steps that a senior officer will have to go through to satisfy herself or himself that a condition can be imposed on the grounds of noise.
The senior officer must decide whether the impact is significant. In doing so, they must have regard to the likely number of people who may be affected, the likely duration and the likely intensity of that impact. The threshold at which police officers will be able to impose conditions on the use of noise is rightly very high. The examples I have been provided with—I am sure the Committee will understand that I am not citing any particular protest or assembly—are that a noisy protest in a town centre may not meet the threshold, but a protest creating the same amount of noise outside a school might, given the age of those likely to be affected and how those in the school are trying to sit down to learn on an average day. A noisy protest outside an office with double glazing may not meet the threshold, but a protest creating the same amount of noise outside a care home for elderly people, a GP surgery or small, street-level businesses might, given the level of disruption likely to be caused. Again, that refers to the conditions in clause 54(3) about the likely number of people, the likely duration and the likely intensity of that impact on such persons.
We have heard an awful lot about the police having to apply judgment and make decisions quickly, but, given the examples that the Minister has just read out, does she agree that there is a good dollop of common sense in much of what we need to apply with this legislation?
Indeed. Of course, we are rightly sitting here scrutinising every single word of the Bill carefully, but a senior police officer on the ground will have had a great deal of training and years of experience as an officer working in their local communities. They will also have the knowledge of their local communities. I imagine that policing a quiet village and policing the centre of Westminster are two very different experiences, and the officers making such decisions will be well versed in the needs of their local areas. None the less, officers across the country will be bound by the terms of subsection (3)—those checks and balances I have referred to throughout—and the European convention on human rights.
I thank the Minister for being generous; it is appreciated. On the examples I supplied, her response was that the existing legislation ought to be covering the point. She mentioned a case study in which a protest could reach the threshold if there was no double-glazing. What concerns me is the organiser who could now face up to six months in jail. Are they meant to know whether properties do or do not have double-glazing, and therefore instruct the march to be silent for a specific 100 yards, as they could otherwise fall foul of the earlier clause? I say to the Minister that I just do not like subjectivity when it comes to the law.
The organiser in those circumstances would, of course, be liable to having a committed an offence only if they breached the order. Indeed, this is the important point. It is for the police to make that assessment. If the police have a conversation with an organiser and say, “We believe that using your very high-level amplification system in this residential street meets the criteria under subsection (3) such that we are going to impose a condition asking you to turn it down,” the organiser, or the person deemed to be the organiser, will have had that conversation with an officer, and I very much hope that they will abide by the condition. If they do not, that is where the offence comes in, and that is a choice for the organiser.
As is already the case with processions, those conversations will happen and it will be a matter for the organiser as to what course of action they choose to take. One hopes that they will take the advice and guidance of the police, adapt and therefore be able to continue with their protest in a way that meets the expectations of the local community or local businesses. I appreciate that the detail is incredibly technical, and I am trying to work through every set of factual circumstances. I understand absolutely why people want to work through those, but there are checks and balances that run throughout the Bill.
First, does the Minister agree that we must therefore have specific training for the police? She has referred many times to senior officers making decisions, but senior officers might not be available in Stockton-on-Tees or Rotherham, and certainly not in the local village, when there is some form of demonstration. The local PC may well be the person who has to turn up and make some form of decision in this situation. Secondly, on the issue of noise itself, how can a police officer be fair and objective where there are different groups of people who will be suffering differently as a direct result of a demonstration? A bunch of teenagers standing on Whitehall might find the noise and the robustness of the conversation tremendously exciting, but the pensioners group that has gone for tea at the local café might be very distressed. How on earth does the police officer make a balanced decision in that sort of situation?
I can help the hon. Gentleman on the officer point. Pre-procession—in other words, in respect of processions that are yet to happen—the conditions must be assessed, and if ordered, ordered by a chief officer. That is a chief constable outside London, and in London an assistant commissioner. That is the highest rank in a police force. Mid-procession, conditions are imposed by a senior officer, which is an inspector or above, at the scene. So I do not think that the circumstances that the hon. Gentleman describes will arise. It is another example of the checks and balances that we have tried to put in place throughout this part of the Bill to ensure that these decisions are taken by very experienced and specialised officers.
I have been given another example to help demonstrate the point. A noisy protest that lasts only a short time may not meet the threshold, so the 90 seconds of—I forget the piece of music—
Thank you, Holst. But a protest creating the same amount of noise over several days might meet it, given the extended duration of the protest.
Again, it is about the officer on the ground, or before the protest, making these decisions in the circumstances of the protest and the surrounding area. Situating oneself in the middle of an enormous park would be different from situating oneself in the middle of a residential street, where lots of people are living in mansion flats or blocks of flats nearby—I am thinking specifically of the Westminster example. Those are all factors that the senior officers will have to weigh up.
The vast majority of processions, assemblies and single-person protests will be able to continue making noise as they do now. Most organisations are able to continue to operate with a loud protest on their doorstep without serious disruption to their activities, and most individuals are able to endure loud protests without suffering serious unease, alarm or distress.
For clarification, is the senior officer expected to know the area and the types of buildings where the protest will be, as well as the nature of the demonstration—whether it will have lots of sound systems, or involve lots of whistles and chants? Is it expected that that will be known beforehand, or is there scope to act if that were to occur during a demonstration?
That serves to demonstrate the dynamic nature of different forms of protest. If a decision is to be made during the course of a protest, it will be made by a senior officer of inspector rank or above, on the ground and assessing the situation. Let me try to provide a practical example. The inspector may assess the situation in Hyde Park, then walk through to an area where there is lots of high-density housing and consider that the circumstances there are different. It is about being able to react to circumstances as they change and evolve in the course of a protest. That is why we are trying to bring consistency between processions and assemblies—because of the dynamic nature of protests—but it will be for the senior officer, working of course with his or her colleagues, to assess the factors laid out in subsection (3).
The police will impose conditions on the use of noise only in the exceptional circumstances where noise causes unjustifiable disruption or impact. I emphasise that in doing so they will have to have regard to the number of people affected and the intensity and duration of the noise, and act compatibly with the rights of freedom of expression and so on within the convention.
The shadow Minister prayed in aid the non-legislative recommendations from HMIC. I want to place on the record that the National Police Chiefs’ Council has established a programme board to consider and implement those. I hope that helps.
Exactly right. The police will first have to satisfy themselves and the CPS that a charge should be brought, and from that all the usual safeguards and standards that we expect in the criminal justice system will apply. For example, the CPS will have to apply the code for Crown prosecutors in relation to the public interest and evidential tests. We will then have the mechanisms in the trial process—perhaps a submission at half-time by defence counsel if they feel the evidence is not there. There are many mechanisms that apply in criminal trials up and down the country every single day, and those mechanisms will be available for offences under the Bill as they are for any other criminal offence.
I have been asked for clarification of the terms: annoyance, alarm, distress and unease. Many of those terms are already used in the Public Order Act 1986 and in common law. They are well understood by the judiciary, and the Law Commission—this is particularly in reference to the public nuisance point, which we will come on to in a moment—recommends retaining the word “annoyance”, as it provides continuity with previous legal cases and is well understood in this context. We understand the concerns about this, but as I say, through the introduction of these words, we are trying to be consistent with the approach that has long applied in the Public Order Act.
It is necessary to apply the measure in relation to noise to single-person protests because they can, of course, create just as much noise through the use of amplification equipment as a large protest using such equipment. Again, the police will be able to impose conditions on a single-person protest for reasons relating only to noise, not for any other reason.
Forgive me: I have just been corrected regarding the briefing I received about the rank of the officer at the scene. It is the most senior officer at the scene, so there is no minimum rank, but it is anticipated in the use of the word that it will be an officer of great seniority. Any protest on which it may be necessary to impose conditions is likely to have an officer present of at least the rank of inspector.
I am grateful to the Minister for clarifying that point, but it does mean that the local sergeant or PC in a village or a town centre is going to have to make decisions about these matters. My point was that surely, this means that there needs to be some very specific training on how police should react to demonstrations or other activities of that nature.
I would give the police some credit. First, if it is a protest of any serious size, or the organisers have contacted the police or the other way around, this can and should be dealt with ahead of the protest. In the event of a protest taking people by surprise in a quieter area than a huge metropolis, the police will react as they are very used to reacting in circumstances that need them to be flexible and move quickly, and I am sure they will have people on the scene very quickly who can assist with this. We want to ensure that the expectation is that a senior officer, and certainly the most senior officer at the scene, will be the one imposing these conditions.
I now turn to the parts of the clauses that set out that the Home Secretary will have the power, through secondary legislation, to define the meaning of
“serious disruption to the life of the community” and
“serious disruption to the activities of an organisation which are carried on in the vicinity of the procession”, or assembly or single-person protest. Again, to clear up any misunderstandings, this is not about the Home Secretary of the day banning protests. Opposition Members have understandably called for clearer definitions wherever possible, which is what this delegated power is intended to achieve. Any definition created through this power will need to fall within what can reasonably be understood as “serious disruption”. The threshold will be clarified, not changed: such definitions will be used to clarify the threshold beyond which the police can impose conditions on protests, should they believe them necessary to avoid serious disruption. This is about putting the framework in place to help the police on the ground.
The regulations will be subject to the draft affirmative procedure, which means that they must be scrutinised, debated, and approved by both Houses before they can be made. It will, of course, be for the police in an individual case to apply that definition operationally. They can apply that definition only if the criteria in the Bill are met. This is not about the Home Secretary outlawing particular protests or individual demonstrations; it is about setting a framework for a definition, to help the police operation on the ground to understand the criteria in the Bill. To assist in scrutiny of the Bill, we aim to publish further details of the content of the regulation before consideration on Report.
The clauses relating to protest, public assemblies, marches, processions and demonstrations, as well as other terms that have been used to describe this, represent a modest updating of legislation that is more than 35 years old. They do not enable the police or, for that matter, the Home Secretary of the day to ban any protest. Interestingly, we will come to debates in Committee on new clause 43, which relates to interference with access to or the provision of abortion services. That provision does, in fact, seek to ban such protests, so, again, there is a balancing act, or the grey area that has been referred to in this very debate.
No, I am drawing out an apparent contradiction. I do not say that in a pejorative sense. The hon. Member and others have expressed strong reservations and complaints about the Bill. I understand that they will vote against the measures, but it seems that discussions about freedom of speech and expression—that balancing act—will be part of the consideration of the Opposition’s new clause. I am not laying out a position either way; I am observing the difficulty in achieving that balancing act and an apparent contradiction. It is for individual Members to decide matters of scrutiny.
These clauses provide for a sensible alignment of police powers to attach conditions to an assembly or a public procession, and extend those powers to deal with particularly egregious cases of disruption due to unacceptable levels of noise. The measures are supported by the police, who will, as now, have to exercise the powers within the framework of the Human Rights Act. On that basis, and with that detailed analysis, I commend the clauses to the Committee.