Government doubles down on anti-protest legislation

Last year, the Government introduced a raft of last-minute amendments to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill (now Act), which attracted furious backlash from politicians and human rights activists across the UK.

The amendments sought to criminalise “locking on”, obstructions of major transport works, interference with operation of key national infrastructure, and amongst other changes, strengthen police powers to stop and search individuals with or without suspicion of an offence.

These amendments were prompted in response to a series of co-ordinated protests by environmental campaign groups such as Insulate Britain, Black Lives Matter, Just Stop Oil, and Extinction Rebellion. Peaceful protests, such as those following the tragic death of Sarah Everard also played a part. Following a debate in the Lords during the Report Stage of the Bill, peers rejected all of the amendments tabled by the Government.

The widespread opposition in the Upper House showed that these measures were considered as deeply harmful and unpopular. Peers felt that they were being backed into a corner, and not being given enough time to scrutinise these widely controversial powers that were being proposed.

Despite this damning defeat for the Home Secretary, who has very much been leading the charge for these changes, the Government has now decided to double down – reintroducing the amendments during the recent State Opening of Parliament, via the Public Order Bill.

The Bill is being accelerated through the Commons at a rapid rate, with it having already had its Second Reading earlier this week. Human rights groups have been quick to voice their concerns about the return of these amendments, and will undoubtedly be making representations to parliamentarians in both Houses, urging them to work across parties to slow down the Government’s progress enough for them to reconsider the implications of the measures.

The Lords will, once again, be the key battleground for this Bill. On the one hand, peers will now have ample opportunity to consider all aspects of the Bill, but on the other hand, the Government will be turning the screw, knowing that there may well be attempts to block this legislation from passing.

For the Government, this legislation is seen as an ‘easy win’ in many ways, having gauged that public sentiment towards activist groups is divided; secured the broad support of organisations such as Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services (HMICFRS); and that the overwhelming majority of Conservative MPs are supportive of the proposed measures.

Nonetheless, the proposed expansion of police powers and criminal sanctions through this Bill will be subject to a great deal of further scrutiny. Further consideration needs to be given to the impact these measures would have on the UK’s compliance with the European Convention on Human Rights, in particular Article 10 ECHR (freedom of expression) and Article 11 ECHR (freedom of assembly and association).

Others are critical of the Bill because they believe it will exacerbate existing backlogs in the UK’s justice system and that the Government should be focussing on tackling serious economic crime and delivering justice for victims. The Bill contains nothing aimed at easing the judicial backlog, which is likely to cause significant concern.

The legislation has also been criticised for the uncertainty around the exact meaning of terms such as “serious disruption”, “locking-on”, and “protest related”. This ambiguity would make it difficult for protesters to know whether their behaviour is lawful or not and would leave police officers with too much discretion, increasing the possibility of abuse of powers and challenges with enforcement.

With the Government looking to accelerate the progress of this Bill through both Houses, it will be important for human rights advocates, campaign groups, and others impacted by the Bill to act clearly and early so that their views are considered in the process