Why we should fear the Tories’ fresh attacks on protest

Why we should fear the Tories’ fresh attacks on protest
Police state — As the Public Order Bill returns to Parliament today, activists and campaigners are sounding the alarm over what they’re calling a rollback of human rights.

Earlier this year, as the controversial Policing, Crime, Sentencing and Courts bill entered the final stages of passage through Parliament in the House of Lords, the government attempted to slip in 11th hour amendments. The provisions, introduced by then Home Secretary Priti Patel, added further draconian limits to the right to protest, already dramatically impeded by the original content of the bill.

At the time many criticised the move as a cynical ploy to avoid proper parliamentary scrutiny. Liberty called it a “dangerous power grab” while Liberal Democrat peer Lord Beith remarked that “it seems… political considerations have taken precedence over all considerations relating to making good law and, indeed, policing protests satisfactorily and effectively”.

The amendments, which included new offences prohibiting so-called ‘lock ons’, restriction of protest at major infrastructure sites and the introduction of Serious Disruption Prevention Orders (SDPO) were duly struck down by the Lords, along with many of the other restrictions which would eventually be voted back into legislation by the Commons. Because the 11th hour amendments were added in after the bill’s passage through the Commons, they were not able to be reconsidered, meaning that, for then at least, they had been defeated. 

The Policing bill passed without them, receiving royal assent on 28 April 2022. Within days, on 11 May 2022, a new Public Order Bill was introduced to the House. Included within it were those provisions voted so conclusively voted down by the Lords just a few months before.

As Westminster continues to reel from weeks of political and economic turmoil, that bill returns to Parliament today for its third reading.

There are many heinous, authoritarian and terrifying aspects to the new proposals, but perhaps the most egregious are the Serious Disruption Prevention Orders. SDPOs are a new civil order that are effectively protest bans for individuals which can be imposed on those who have attended two or more protests in the previous five year period regardless of whether that person has been convicted of a crime or not. The draconian proposals go far beyond simply prohibiting attendance at protests. 

The orders, which can last anywhere from a week to two years, with the potential to be renewed indefinitely, ban named individuals from protesting, associating with certain people at certain times, and even using the internet in certain ways. Those subject to SDPOs may also be subject to a range of onerous requirements, including reporting to certain places at certain times and electronic monitoring. An individual who is subject to an SDPO commits a criminal offence, which can carry with it a maximum of 51 weeks in prison, a fine or both, if they fail without reasonable excuse to fulfil one of the requirements of the SDPO, violate one of the SDPO’s prohibitions or notify to the police any information which they know to be false. 

The orders can be imposed either upon conviction for a protest offence or, in cases where an individual has not committed a crime, upon application by senior police officers to a magistrates court. 

When consulted on similar protest banning orders in March 2021 the police, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Fire and Rescue Services (HMICFRS), and the Home Office all refused to support the proposals. HMICFRS and the Home Office stated, “Such orders would neither be compatible with human rights legislation nor create an effective deterrent. All things considered, legislation creating protest banning orders would be legally very problematic because, however many safeguards might be put in place, a banning order would completely remove an individual’s right to attend a protest.”

Perhaps one of the most insidious parts of the order comes not from the assault on the right to protest – as heinous as it is – but from their ability to prohibit the association of people. This could explicitly ban the recipient of an SDPO from seeing others involved in certain groups or organisations. In other words, the orders would stop friends, communities, groups coming together to organise. 

As Jun Pang, Policy and Campaigns Officer at Liberty, told Huck, “Serious Disruption Prevention Orders are an attack on anyone who has a cause they believe in. In imposing draconian restrictions on people’s daily lives, they risk cutting people off from their wider communities and social movements, which for many people, are integral to who they are. 

She continues, “SDPOs will massively expand surveillance on individuals, leading them to be isolated and alienated from their communities. This will also have serious wider ramifications, by threatening to extend the surveillance to which an individual is subjected to everyone they potentially interact with – whether that’s their loved ones or an organising group that they are a part of.”

SDPOs are far from the only provision in the new legislation that we should be concerned by. The Public Order bill contains within it a stark and dramatic expansion of stop and search powers which campaigners warn represent another direct attack on the right to protest, as well as further entrenching racism into the criminal justice system.

The powers grant police the ability to stop and search any person or vehicle if they “reasonably suspect” they will find an item intended for use in connection with a whole host of offences associated with direct action. These offences include wilful obstruction of the highway, public nuisance and new offences outlawing the tactic of locking on. So vague is the wording of the bill and wide ranging the powers within it that they could see those in possession of fliers, banners or bike locks criminalised. 

There is already widespread evidence which shows that current stop and search powers are disproportionately used against people of colour. Latest statistics show that Black people are 14 times more likely to be stopped and searched by police than their white counterparts.

Pang warns that the expansion of these powers will “ worsen racist policing, and make protest unsafe for people from marginalised communities – including those locked out of the corridors of power – for whom this right is most urgent.”

Further provisions within the act come in the shape of new anti-lock on offences. The practice of attaching oneself to another or to a building or land via either a lock on tube or glue has a long tradition of being used by a variety of different protest groups. Most recently groups like Insulate Britain, Just Stop Oil and Extinction Rebellion have brought the practice into the public consciousness, with current Home Secretary Suella Braverman claiming that the new legislation would be used to deal explicitly with these groups.

The wording of the bill is, once again, so vague and wide ranging that campaigners warn it could lead to the ludicrous situation where protestors could potentially face prosecution under it for simply linking arms with another person at a protest.

Raj Chada is head of Criminal Defence at Hodge, Jones and Allen. He told Huck, “it defies belief that the government has returned to clamp down further on protests. Disruptive protests are not necessarily unlawful so criminalising the use of lock-ones is absurd. I cannot see how much of this will be compliant with the European Convention on Human Rights. Rather than locking people up they should ask why so many people are protesting and should be done about the climate crisis, racism or poverty. That is why people are on the streets.”

His dismay is echoed by others in the legal profession. Yesterday Barristers chambers Garden Court North Chambers, Garden Court Protest Law Team, One Pump Court Crime Team, and Nexus Chambers released a joint statement condemning the Public Order bill. The chambers, who include some of the foremost criminal defence barristers in the country, stated that, “the regressive nature of the Bill can be seen in the provisions aimed at criminalising peaceful direct action tactics relied on by protests which form a proud part of the fabric of our political and social history: including those as momentous as the women’s suffrage movement, the Indian independence movement and against apartheid in South Africa.”

This period of Tory governance under the stewardship of successive Prime Ministers will be characterised as many things by history. They have presided over unprecedented attacks on the working class, political and economic chaos for the ages and an onslaught on our basic rights. The public order bill represents the latest volley in that sustained barrage. It is one designed to disenfranchise us. To silence dissent and the power and voice of the people, just at a time when those suffering need to be heard the most. 

Ben Smoke is Huck’s Commissioning Editor. Follow him on Twitter.

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