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Bill chokes the right to protest

24 February 2023

Bishops are wise to resist an expansion of police powers, says Nicholas Reed Langen


FREEDOM of belief is nothing without the right to speak out in defence of such beliefs. By refusing to vote for the amendments to the Government’s Public Order Bill (POB) last month (News, 21 January), bishops in the House of Lords were acting in the best traditions of protest — and, indeed, Protestantism — in this country. Under the Bill, the right to protest would be illusory. It would exist at the discretion of the Home Secretary and the police.

As the Bishop of St Albans, Dr Alan Smith, said during the Second Reading last November, the legislation would continue the trend of giving “worryingly broadly drawn powers to the police”.

Under the Bill, the police would have the authority to stop protests before they had even begun. It not only creates the offences of “locking on” (attaching oneself to others, objects, or buildings to cause serious disruption) and tunnelling (creating and occuping tunnels with the same purpose), but gives the police the authority to arrest and charge people as protesters if they are merely “equipped” to protest in such a way, and to restrict the freedom of those deemed likely to cause “serious disruption”.

Couple this with the prohibition against protesting in a way that might obstruct “major transport works” or “key national infrastructure”, and the police have laissez-faire to shut down a protest anywhere, at any time. As a letter to the Prime Minister from the Bishop of Manchester, Dr David Walker, and other faith leaders said, the Bill is an “unprecedented attack on religious and belief communities”, with the potential for “grave misuse” by the authorities (News, 27 January).

Nor can the police properly argue that they have a track record of policing well within the boundaries of their powers. In November, during a spate of Extinction Rebellion protests, Hertfordshire Police descended on the protesters and those reporting the protests, arresting three journalists and detaining one.

Similarly, in a report published last year, Big Brother Watch found an “alarming pattern of police disproportionately using existing powers to target people exercising their right to protest”. An example is the Metropolitan Police’s suppression of the Sarah Everard protest during the pandemic.

GIVEN this history, it is difficult for the Government to complain that police powers to monitor and regulate protest are inadequate. Legislation already prohibits protests from being conducted in a way that could cause serious harm to the public at large.

But current legislation also recognises that protest can cause discomfort and still be lawful, and requires any restrictions on protests to be proportionate.

For people stuck in traffic jams while protesters dangle from gantries; for commuters held at a station because of demonstrators clinging to the roof of a train; or for visitors to galleries when activists glue themselves to works of art, it may seem proportionate to nip such protests in the bud. The public may well ask what is achieved by these actions: how does defacing a priceless work of art combat climate change? It is already likely, of course, to lead to charges of criminal damage.

But protest is the price that we pay for living in a free society. Change may sometimes come from within the traditional routes, when a think tank wins round a government minister, or when the courts strike down laws that violate a minority group’s rights. But this is rare. Change more often comes after social pressure builds. Contemporary activists know, like the Chartists and Suffragettes before them, that their protests will antagonise and isolate a few, but hope that this will be a sacrifice for the greater good, turning the majority to their cause.

MORE pragmatically, this Bill would also do little to limit the actions of the activists which the Government most fears — at least, at first. Environmental activists such as Just Stop Oil have shown that they are willing to face arrest, trial, and prison. In this spirit, Extinction Rebellion protested from the Upper Chamber’s public gallery as the Lords debated the Bill, speaking out in defence of human rights and condemning the Bill’s restrictions on free speech.

What the Bill would do is neuter the right for most people. Those who fear the consequences of criminal convictions would have been quietened, deterred from ever speaking out against the Government. Dr Walker spoke in the Lords about how the police already had “sufficient powers” to control protest. He told peers about a letter that he had received from a retired vicar in his diocese who is facing prison after being convicted of obstruction for blocking a road. Any further criminalisation would hold the threat of criminal conviction over the head of any protester, neutralising the right entirely.

Letting the police search people without suspicion, arrest people who aid protesters, or shut down protests that have the “potential” to cause disruption are powers that have no place in a liberal democracy. This Bill would tighten the noose around the neck of freedom of speech, choking the right until the only protests that could be held were those that the Government desired or permitted. A protest that the Government permits is no protest at all.

Nicholas Reed Langen is a writer and commentator on legal and constitutional affairs, a former Re:Constitution Fellow (2021-22), and editor of the
LSE Public Policy Review.

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