Government plans to introduce new powers to crack down on protests have cleared the first hurdle in the Commons — despite warnings an “all-out assault” the right to demonstrate from civil liberties groups.
Following two days of debates on the contentious proposals, MPs voted by 359 to 263 to pass the police, crime, sentencing and courts bill at second reading in a move that was described as a “dark stain on our democracy”.
The draft section on “public order” states that conditions can be imposed on demonstrations if the noise generated “may result in serious disruption to the activities of an organisation” or may “have a relevant impact on persons in the vicinity of the protest”.
It creates a new public nuisance law that would make causing “serious annoyance or inconvenience” a crime punishable by up to 10 years’ imprisonment
And it would give Priti Patel and her successors at the Home Office the authority to define “serious disruption to the life of the community” and “serious disruption to the activities of an organisation” — a measure criticised by Theresa May.
The former prime minister — also the longest-serving home secretary — warned during the first debates on the bill: “I would urge the government to consider carefully the need to walk the fine line between being popular and populist. Our freedoms depend on it.”
Ministers have argued that “recent change in tactics” used by protestors, such as Extinction Rebellion, including gluing themselves to building and vehicles or obstructing access to Parliament, have highlighted gaps in existing the legislation passed in 1986.
The civil liberties group Liberty described the vote on Tuesday evening as a “dark stain on our democracy”, adding: “Our right to protest is not and should never be viewed as a gift from the state.”
The organisation’s head of policy and campaigns Sam Grant added: “We also have the right to live free from undue or discriminatory state interference. The police, crime, sentencing and courts bill seeks to undo these basic foundations of our democracy. It is an assault on basic civil liberties, and MPs should have rejected it outright.
“We cannot allow these powers to pass and while today’s vote is beyond disappointing, the bill still has a long distance to travel until it’s passed into law. We’re urging all those who are concerned about what is happening to basic civil liberties in this country to come together to stand up for our democratic values.”
An amendment put forward by Labour had urged the Commons to decline to give the legislation a second reading — effectively killing the bill — as it “rushes through changes to protest law”, but it was rejected by 359 votes to 225.
During the debate, the DUP MP Gavin Robinson also described the legislation as “overreaching, sweeping and draconian provisions on protest”.
“The loose and lazy way this legislation is drafted would make a dictator blush. Protestors will be noisy, protests will disrupt and no matter how offensive we may find the issue at their heart, the right to protest should be protected.”
Supporting the legislation, however, Conservative MP Sir David Amess whose office overlooks Parliament Square, said he had long complained about “endless demonstration”, adding: “It’s very difficult to work because of the noise, with drums, horns and loudspeakers. Policing these so-called events costs huge amounts of money. Parliament being the seat of democracy, our work should be not be disrupted”.
Robert Buckland, the solicitor general, insisted he did “not see what the fuss is about” over the new powers, telling MPs: “The particular provisions on protest are a reflection of the Law Commission’s report of 2015 and indeed a reflection of the common law in England and Wales on public nuisance, which refers to – amongst other things – annoyance, serious annoyance and other terms which are well known to law.
“The maximum penalty in common law for public nuisance was life imprisonment and that’s being reduced to 10 years. I really frankly do not see what the fuss is about, I rather think it is a confection designed to assist an opposition in difficulty.”
Earlier, Paddy Tipping, the chair of the Association of Police and Crime Commissioners (APCC), told a press conference the changes were not needed, adding: “These are local matters for chief constables in consultations with PCCs and I was concerned to see the draft clauses in the bill”.
Martin Surl, vice-chair of the APCC, said police “have the laws needed already”.
“When you make these laws, you can’t pick laws for the protests you like and don’t like,” he added. “If you’re protesting about Me Too, climate change, racism, the laws have got to be the same. Police constables are operationally independent and don’t have an agenda, which some politicians do.”
Mr Surl, who is the politically independent PCC for Gloucestershire, said: “I don’t like law for law’s sake, especially on freedom of protest.”