Deep Dive: The Public Order Bill

At the recent Conservative Party conference Home Secretary Suella Braverman ramped up the divisive rhetoric against protestors by describing them as a “mob” that needs to be “stopped”. Now the Government has revived its ‘Public Order Bill’, a bill that has been widely criticised by human rights experts and advocacy groups for undermining people’s right to protest and challenge injustice. The bill will be voted on in Parliament on Monday 17th October, giving MPs a chance to dispute and block some of the worst anti-protest (and anti-democratic) proposals.

The ‘Public Order Bill’ is just one of many bills that have recently been proposed to Parliament which will impede our right to free speech. Two other examples are ‘The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022’ and ‘The Online Safety Bill’ which pose a similar threat. The right to free speech is protected under Article 10 of the ‘Human Rights Act’ (HRA) and Article 19 of the ‘Universal Declaration of Human Rights’. However, with the ‘Human Rights Act’ itself under threat of removal by the Government’s ‘Bill of Rights’ (also known as the ‘Rights Removal Bill’), the public will have less power to hold their leaders accountable for their oppressive actions.

Earlier this year the police gained greater powers to shut down protests with the arrival of the ‘Policing Act’. It allows the police to terminate ‘seriously disruptive’ protests, a deliberately vague term that can be manipulated and re-defined by the Home Secretary to stop demonstrations of which the powerful disapprove. Combined with the ‘Public Order Bill’, the two represent a large leap towards the total criminalisation of protests. But, while these policies are dangerous and unnerving, they are not wholly surprising. In recent years, the government have been gradually pushing towards the police having greater control over protests to the point where they become impossible. Additionally, facial recognition surveillance technology is regularly used at protests to scan the face of every protestor, classify them as extremists and to then add them to counter-terror lists almost arbitrarily. On top of this, people arrested at protests can face prison sentences that are hugely disproportionate to the reasonable consequences for their actions. ‘Legal Observers’ who ensure people’s rights are respected by the police at protests have also been arrested.

The stated intention of the Bill is “to strengthen police powers to tackle dangerous and highly disruptive protest tactics”, however, its scope goes much further and is far more damaging that it first seems. Four of the worst elements of the bill identified by the ‘Liberty’ group for human rights are:

Protest banning orders: These can be issued without even committing an offence. They can include electronic tagging and prevent you from going to particular places, meeting certain people, and using the internet in certain ways.

‘Locking on’ will be a criminal offence: This is when you attach yourself, someone else, or an object to something else. It is a common tactic at protests where protestors will superglue themselves to the ground, or ziptie themselves to posts and poles.

Expanding stop and search: This tactic is always disproportionately used against Black people. Police will now be able to stop and search people and vehicles for, and then confiscate, any items that could be used to commit a protest offence. Being such a vague term, objects such as glue, a bike lock, or placard could all be classed as protest-related items.

New offences of ‘interfering with key national infrastructure’: This would make it an offence to protest at sites of power or to do anything to obstruct transport works. Both of these tactics are commonly used by environmental groups such as ‘Extinction Rebellion’ and ‘Just Stop Oil’.

These four proposals were removed from the Policing Act nine months ago by the House of Lords after a national backlash against the measures, but the Conservatives are attempting to force them through with this Bill.

The ability to assemble in peaceful demonstration is a crucial part of any democracy. For example, without acts of non-violent civil disobedience, we would not have votes for women, trade union rights, and same-sex marriage. These proposals could lead to anyone being criminalised simply for demonstrating for a cause they believe in. This Bill is another step towards the Government being untouchable and unaccountable for its actions, and it must be stopped.

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