FAITH leaders have called on the Prime Minister to abandon a new Public Order Bill, which they say will criminalise ordinary citizens who engage in peaceful protests, including prayer vigils, public acts of worship, and community events.
The Bill, which would allow police to detain anyone merely on suspicion of planning an action, has been conceived in the wake of the recent disruptive protests by climate campaigners. Its Report Stage in the House of Lords is planned for 30 January (News, 21 January 2022).
In an open letter to Rishi Sunak, the group says that the Bill would create “a vast range of new criminal offences” which could result in members of faith groups facing fines, prosecution, and even imprisonment for putting their beliefs into practice.
The 20 signatories include the Bishop of Manchester, Dr David Walker; the heads of several Nonconformist Churches, including the Revd Graham Thompson, President of the Methodist Conference; the Secretary-General of the Muslim Council of Britain, Ms Zara Mohammed; the director of the UK Network of Sikh Organisations, Lord Singh of Wimbledon; and representatives of charities including Cafod and Christian Aid.
One specific offence that the Bill would create is “locking-on”, in which campaigners attach themselves to objects at the protest site. The letter suggests that individuals who act on their faith or belief by offering a locked-on protester a drink of water could fall foul of the law, as the bottle could count as an object used in connection with the offence.
The signatories believe that the Bill will have a “significant and deeply troubling impact” on religious and belief communities, which are often at the forefront of tackling injustices and discrimination. They write: “New stop and search powers, which can be exercised without the need for reasonable suspicion, would exacerbate the unacceptable levels of discrimination that already result from existing powers.” Also, the proposed “Serious Disruption Prevention Orders”, they believe, would restrict individuals’ liberty, criminalising even those who arrange transport to peaceful protests.
They describe these measures as an “unprecedented attack on religious and belief communities”, and say that the Bill “has no place in modern British society”.
Two months ago, the Bishop of Southwell & Nottingham, the Rt Revd Paul Williams, helped to secure a Lords amendment to the Bill defining churches as an “essential service to the community”, where offences such as locking-on could be deemed unlawful (News, 25 November 2022).
This latest Bill is seen as further efforts by the Government to toughen anti-protest legislation. It has already increased powers to stop disruptive demonstrations and dismantle unauthorised encampments with the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act, which came into force in the spring of last year.
Ms Mohammed said: “Freedom of assembly and expression, and the public’s ability to hold the Government to account, are fundamental rights, and essential components of any functioning democratic society. This Bill, much like its predecessor, the Police, Crime Sentencing and Courts Bill, is set to further erode our civil liberties, and exacerbates pre-existing disparities in policing and the criminal justice system. Minority and faith communities deserve better than being further marginalised and criminalised.”
The Quakers’ Recording Clerk, Paul Parker, said: “This Bill undermines our human rights to freedom of expression and assembly. It makes it harder for people of faith to follow their consciences. The Government must tackle the causes of current crises, not punish those who campaign peacefully for solutions.”
The full text of the letter reads:
Dear Prime Minister,
We write as faith and belief groups to express our concerns regarding the Public Order Bill, in advance of its Report Stage in the House of Lords later this month.
Freedom of thought, conscience, and religion is of the utmost importance to faith and belief groups across the United Kingdom. Protest has always been an essential part of putting faith and belief into practice. In a climate of rising intolerance and discrimination, from antisemitism and islamophobia to sexism and racism more broadly, religion and belief communities have always been at the forefront of tackling such injustices. The Bill undoubtedly presents a profound threat to the values and practices of faith and belief groups, and could result in members of faith and belief groups facing fines, prosecution, and even imprisonment for putting their beliefs into practice.
The Bill creates a vast range of new criminal offences, which would empower the police to criminalise those involved in a range of peaceful activities, including prayer vigils, public acts of worship, community events, and protests. The offence of “locking on”, for example, is so broad that an individual who puts their faith or belief into practice by offering a “locked-on” protestor a simple drink of water could fall foul of the law, since the bottle itself could count as an object used in connection with the offence.
As faith and belief groups, we care deeply about combatting discrimination and inequality within our society. We are concerned that the new stop and search powers, especially those than can be exercised without the need for reasonable suspicion, would exacerbate the unacceptable levels of discrimination that already result from existing powers.
We are also concerned that the proposed Serious Disruption Prevention Orders, which would place serious restrictions on individuals’ liberty, could be issued to members of our communities who organise peaceful processions and protests, or are tangentially involved, for example, by organising a bus to take community members to the procession or protest or funding community members to attend. This represents an unprecedented attack on religious and belief communities, members of which will undoubtedly face such restrictions if introduced.
This Bill has no place in modern British society, and history teaches us to be wary of granting the State with overly broad powers with the potential for grave misuse. We hope, given the Government’s express commitment to defending freedom of religion or belief for all, that you agree that it is unacceptable to expose such communities to fear of criminalisation as a result of putting their faith or beliefs into practice.
We therefore invite you to think again, and withdraw the Bill at the earliest opportunity. It is not too late to set things right.
Paul Parker, Recording Clerk, Quakers in Britain
David Walker, Bishop of Manchester, Church of England
Zara Mohammed, Secretary-General, Muslim Council of Britain
Lord Singh of Wimbledon CBE, Director, Network of Sikh Organisations UK
Elizabeth Slade, Chief Officer, General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches
Neil Thorns, Director of Advocacy and Communications, CAFOD
Mia Hasenson-Gross, Executive Director, René Cassin, the Jewish voice for Human Rights
Revd Graham Thompson, President of the Methodist Conference, Methodist Church in Britain
Revd Fiona Bennett, Moderator of General Assembly, United Reformed Church
Pete Moorey, Head of Campaigns & UK Advocacy, Christian Aid
Jamie Cresswell, Director, Centre for Applied Buddhism
Graeme Hodge, CEO, All We Can & Y Care International
Revd Dr Darrell D Hannah, Chair, Operation Noah
Olivia Fuchs, Coordinator, Eco Dharma Network
Sue Claydon, Chair, Anglican Pacifist Fellowship
Sarah Kerr, President of the Pagan Federation
Revd Lynn Green, General Secretary, The Baptist Union of Great Britain
Imam Dr Sayed Razawi, Chief Imam, Director General, Scottish Ahlul Bayt Society
Deborah Tomkins, Co-Chair, Green Christian
John Cooper, Director, Fellowship of Reconciliation