CAMPAIGNERS have applauded bishops and peers who voted down government proposals to restrict public protest in the new Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill (News, 17 September 2021, Comment, 1 April 2021).
In a nine-hour debate in the House of Lords on Monday, they rejected plans including allowing police to halt a protest if it becomes too noisy; the creation of a protest-banning order that imposes restrictions on a person who has been on two previous events in the past five years; expanding stop-and-search powers in relation to protest; and a new offence, aimed at the recent activities of groups such as Extinction Rebellion, of interfering with key national infrastructure.
The Bishop of Leeds, the Rt Revd Nick Baines, said that the proposals suggested that the statues of Gandhi and Nelson Mandela in Parliament Square would have to be removed. “You cannot laud people later as being great and prophetic actors by exercising the right to dissent, at the same time as clamping down on that over the road,” he said.
“We have heard a lot in recent debates about freedom, particularly in relation to Covid, freedom passes, and things like that, but we cannot just pick and choose which freedoms are convenient to us in a democracy.”
The Bishop of Bristol, the Rt Revd Vivienne Faull, said: “Often, protests can be annoying, and often they are disruptive — but that is the point. Public spaces, like College Green in Bristol, and Parliament Square, are places which are felt to belong to the public, and which have been places where decision-makers like us are confronted by people’s concerns.
“The Church often preaches good disagreement. We can sometimes be guilty of thinking this is just code for respectful, quiet debate in decision chambers, but good disagreement also rests on truly listening and being confronted with truth and with pain. Such things are not always quiet, or orderly.
“The powerful do not protest on the streets; the powerful have no need to, since they control the levers of change in society. It is those on the outside, who have no other ability to be heard or to create the change they need, who resort to protest. Democracy is not just the ballot box; it is also about making space so that the marginalised, the minorities, and the vulnerable are heard.”
The Lords’ vote was welcomed by the Police Bill Alliance, a group of organisations including Liberty, Bond, Quakers in Britain, Friends of the Earth, and Friends, Families and Travellers, which oppose the Bill.
In a statement, the Alliance said: “Peers have rightly rejected some of the most extreme proposals in the Bill. We are grateful to every peer who stayed late to push back against this draconian Bill which seeks to destroy the right to protest in the UK.
“Measures criminalising protest remain in this Bill, meaning you could get ten years in prison for causing ‘serious annoyance’. We now urge MPs to uphold the changes peers have made.”
The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said on Tuesday: “We will reflect on last night’s votes before the bill returns to the Commons. It is disappointing the Lords did not back the public order measures that will ensure the everyday lives of the overwhelming majority are not disrupted by a selfish minority of protesters whose actions endanger lives and cost the public millions of pounds.”