by Mark Johnson
Thursday, 6
October 2022
Debate
07:00

Suella Braverman’s ‘protest banning orders’ must be stopped

The Public Order Bill is an unacceptable restriction on liberty
by Mark Johnson
Britain’s Home Secretary Suella Braverman. Credit: Getty

Liz Truss has been described as a “classical liberal”, which should mean a great emphasis on protecting freedoms. Yet the big state authoritarianism that has become all too common in the past 12 years of Tory government already seems to be a feature of her administration.

When Truss’s new Home Secretary, Suella Braverman, stood up to address the Conservative Party Conference on Tuesday, her speech had all the hardline hallmarks of her predecessor, Priti Patel, and the previous government as a whole.

Not only did she casually trash the UN Refugee Convention, which the UK played a central role in drafting in the aftermath of the horrors of World War II; she came down against protest rights, invoking numerous fifth columnist bogeymen to justify expanding the reach of the state.

Reeling off a litany of existing criminal acts such as vandalism and rioting, the Home Secretary concluded that it is vital that authorities are given more powers to clamp down on protests. Yet despite citing “the mob”, rioters and vandals, Braverman’s new legislation goes far beyond existing law and targets entirely innocent individuals.

The draconian Public Order Bill empowers the state to place “protest banning orders” on innocent people through civil courts, and forces them to obey extraordinary conditions, ranging from house arrest to constant surveillance through GPS ankle tagging. You only need to be judged as “disruptive” in the vicinity of demonstrations. One Conservative MP has even described these measures as “terror control orders” for protesters, a warped expansion of the Blair-era civil liberties crackdowns we saw throughout the mid-2000s.

The idea that any free and innocent British citizen should be stripped of their right to protest is chilling. Protest banning orders may sound like the wild fantasies of despots, seeking to put away political dissidents, but in just a few short months they could become UK law.

Civil liberties defenders will hope that this is not a case of history repeating itself. Despite many dubbing 10 Downing Street’s previous incumbent as a “libertarian”, Boris Johnson presided over one of the most restrictive governments in living memory. In just two and a half years we saw the tangible removal of our freedoms through coercive lockdowns, intrusive vaccine passports, protest crackdowns and the introduction of the censorious Online Safety Bill.

Johnson’s authoritarianism will cast a long shadow, but some libertarian-minded Conservatives are pushing back. Led by long-term defender of civil liberties Charles Walker MP, a group of backbench Conservatives will seek to rid the Public Order Bill of GPS ankle tagging for innocent campaigners when it returns to Parliament this month, and resist a further expansion of overbearing state power.

Protecting liberty under the law is integral to the political philosophy of true conservatives. Indeed, that is why a vast web of rules already dictates the limitations of our rights and freedoms. As they follow in the footsteps of a government that for years was hooked on a doctrine of incursion into our lives and repression of our liberties, Truss and Braverman have an opportunity to prove to us that conservatism is not becoming synonymous with authoritarianism. They can start by pulling draconian protest banning orders from their Public Order Bill.

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Wilfred Davis
Wilfred Davis
2 months ago

The article helpfully provides a link to the Public Order Bill.

I have followed that link and find on a quick view that it is not about banning protest, it is about preventing serious disruption. In fact, the term ‘serious disruption’ is expressly the relevant test, occurring dozens of times throughout the bill, page after page.

If I can follow the link and discover its contents, so can any other UnHerd reader.

And so could the author of this article.

Samir Iker
Samir Iker
2 months ago
Reply to  Wilfred Davis

Thanks for doing the hard work and confirming that this hand wringing nonsense is, as most of the commentors suspected, a load of bs.

Andrew McDonald
Andrew McDonald
2 months ago
Reply to  Wilfred Davis

Save us all the trouble and tell us what the definition of ‘serious disruption’ is in the Bill, and who will test actions against the definition?

Wilfred Davis
Wilfred Davis
2 months ago

(a) Definition of offence: the courts will follow the rules of statutory interpretation, as they do with all laws.
(b) Testing the actions: this will be done by the courts, as they do with all laws.

Andrew McDonald
Andrew McDonald
2 months ago
Reply to  Wilfred Davis

Thanks for this good start, but I was hoping that somebody would have read and could quote the terms used in the bill, not just tell me that eggs are eggs and cheese is cheese. Sigh. I’ll read the bill.

Eric Blair
Eric Blair
2 months ago
Reply to  Wilfred Davis

And who defines “serious disruption”? If you had read the Bill properly you would see that the subjective term “disruption” is not defined – leaving it to the discretion of the authorities as to who has one of these control orders placed on them.

Wilfred Davis
Wilfred Davis
2 months ago
Reply to  Eric Blair

By ‘the authorities’, I assume you mean the courts.

Yes, courts do have to use their discretion – in other words, make decisions, within the constraints on their powers as provided in law – on the basis of the evidence that is put before them.

That’s what courts do.

Eric Blair
Eric Blair
2 months ago
Reply to  Wilfred Davis

Well, police officers and civil courts, not criminal courts, if we are being specific. As such a person could be adjudged to have been “disruptive”, and have one of these orders placed on them, based on a balance of probabilities rather than where it is beyond reasonable doubt. Again all of this is in the absence of having committed a criminal offence. Are you seriously advocating that someone could be stripped of their liberty and placed under 24-hour surveillance when they have manifestly committed no crime?

Wilfred Davis
Wilfred Davis
2 months ago
Reply to  Eric Blair

It would be the criminal courts.

Under the bill, ‘serious disruption prevention orders’ are capable of being made either (a) on conviction, or (b) if not on conviction, where the person has at least twice: been convicted of (or committed contempt of court in breaching an injunction against) SD, or been involved in activities likely to result in SD, including contributing to others committing SD offences. [Heavily abbreviated for reasons of space.]

Only those who have already engaged at least twice in SD, and are adjudged likely to engage in SD again, are liable to SD prevention orders.

Such orders may involve staying away from specified places at specified times, or presenting themselves to specified persons at specified times, or wearing an electronic monitor. Only for the purpose of preventing further SD.

This doesn’t sound to me like stripping innocent people of their liberty. Rather, allowing actually innocent people to enjoy their liberty going about their lives without serious disruption.

Eric Blair
Eric Blair
2 months ago
Reply to  Wilfred Davis

My mistake, you are right that it is criminal courts not civil courts but these SDPOs require only a civil burden of proof, not criminal – i.e. on a “balance of probabilities” rather than “beyond reasonable doubt”. You skirt over the fact that there is no definition of “disruption” in the Bill and the fact that being “disruptive” itself is not a criminal offence. Indeed, any one of the pro or anti-Brexit marches which were attended by tens of thousands of people and shut down all of Whitehall, were “disruptive”. Do you think all of these people (should they have repeated their “disruption”) should have one of these orders placed on them? Perhaps you are comfortable with stripping of an individual of their liberty without them having committed an offence but I retain my belief that we should be presumed innocent and left alone until we are found to be guilty, by a jury of our peers, of a criminal offence.

Alfred Chester
Alfred Chester
2 months ago
Reply to  Wilfred Davis

I’ve followed the link too. Those powers literally ban innocent people from attending protests… The article author seems to be absolutely right to me. Anyone used to reading Home Office bills would recognise ‘disruptive’ as deliberate vagueness creating blank cheques for police. If someone blocks a road etc there are plenty of existing laws to criminalise them – this goes way beyond anything like that. It’s a massive extension of anti-protest powers for people where there is not even a suspicion of an offence threshold (which is low) being met.

Wilfred Davis
Wilfred Davis
2 months ago
Reply to  Alfred Chester

Those powers literally ban innocent people from attending protests…

They literally don’t.

Richard Barnes
Richard Barnes
2 months ago

If this bill prevents selfish aholes bringing the M25 to a halt while the constabulary bring them tea and biscuits then I’m all for it.

Alfred Chester
Alfred Chester
2 months ago
Reply to  Richard Barnes

Existing laws could do that. GPS tagging innocents will not do that.

Rasmus Fogh
Rasmus Fogh
2 months ago

It is clear even to a quick glance that the law is intended to stop the tactics used by Extinction Rebellion etc. Which sounds like a worthy cause to me. It would be interesting to know if the author
1) Thinks that blocking traffic, construction works etc. in order to push your political views on society are normal and acceptable tactics, and is in favour of Extinction Rebellion etc. continuing and intensifying their actions.
2) Thinks the main aim of the law is reasonable, but that certain (which?) parts are hitting too broadly.

Secondary picketing is currently unlawful. Is it really that much of a stretch to treat motorway blocking in the same way?

Last edited 2 months ago by Rasmus Fogh
Eric Blair
Eric Blair
2 months ago
Reply to  Rasmus Fogh

Obstructing a public highway is already a criminal offence. We don’t need more laws in this area, not least those which restrict the liberties of innocent citizens.

Wilfred Davis
Wilfred Davis
2 months ago
Reply to  Eric Blair

I generally agree that ‘fidgety’ or ‘tinkering’ law-making is unwise where the existing law covers the case.

However, this bill contemplates more than obstructing a public highway.

For example, it covers disruption that may be caused otherwise than on highway. It extends to specific disruptive activities such as ‘locking on’ (gluing or chaining people to things, and so on), obstructing major transport works, interference with key national infrastructure (including rail, air, oil, gas, electricity). The foregoing is just a brief illustration.

To return to the article-writer’s point, this is about preventing disruption to other people’s lives. It remains perfectly possible to protest without engaging in the types of disruption contemplated in the bill.

Peter B
Peter B
2 months ago
Reply to  Wilfred Davis

I think you point to a key distinction here. There is a massive difference between peaceful protest and planned and malicious disruption.
I’m not sure just why so many “protestors” find it necessary to inflict massive disruption on the public. Are their cases so weak that the arguments do not stand on their own merit ? When I read about 1960s civil rights protest marches, these did not aim to disrupt the lives and livelihood of the general public.
I think the truth is that a lot of the “protestors” and “activists” know that their aims cannot and will not be achieved through normal, legal, democratic means. They then attempt to stretch the definition of “protest” to try to legitimise what they are doing. They are not engaged in persuasion, but coercion.
Protesting in a reasonable way must be permitted (indeed it is necessary – we don’t want to end up like Russia). But allowing people to impose unlimited costs and disruption on others at no cost of risk to themselves cannot be correct in a free society based (at least in theory) on personal responsibility. Politicians, media, police and judiciary seem to be getting the balance wrong too often. And I’m saying this as someone who is deeply suspicious of authority in general.
I have read no details of the proposed bill and have no insight into whether it is necessary or not. Though it seems quite likely that the legislation to handle malicious disruption already exists and is simply not used.

Last edited 2 months ago by Peter B
Al N
Al N
2 months ago

Looks like the Police decide what protests to crack down on and what ones to bow to….

Hugh Bryant
Hugh Bryant
2 months ago

Do we really need more public order laws or is it more that the police don’t enforce the existing laws – or at least are highly selective in how they enforce them.

Andrew Martin
Andrew Martin
2 months ago
Reply to  Hugh Bryant

Perhaps Braverman should legislate that the Police should be called a Police Force and not paramilitary social workers.

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
2 months ago

When i see articles citing Boris Johnson as an example of authoritarianism, i see an author that can’t see the wood for the trees.
Yes of course, Johnson was the PM who took the action screamed at him by the medico/epidemiology establishment and msm on pain of being tried for murder. He was still accused of ‘having blood on his hands’ by hesitating for a few days to do something instinctively foreign to his nature.
That inability to see wood for trees pervades the rest of the article.

Last edited 2 months ago by Steve Murray
Alfred Chester
Alfred Chester
2 months ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

To be fair, Boris Johnson led the most authoritarian government in modern history peacetime. I would put mandatory vaccines and house arrest firmly in the ‘authoritarian’ category.

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
2 months ago
Reply to  Alfred Chester

My point, which most of the counterarguments always ignore, is that Johnson didn’t set out as PM to enact the emergency legislation which led to false accusations of authoritarianism, but found himself in a corner as a result of the initial virus overload on hospitals.
Unless you can supply the evidence that he intended to issue lockdown edicts prior to the virus becoming known, i suggest you revise your wrongful accusation.

Last edited 2 months ago by Steve Murray
Andrew Martin
Andrew Martin
2 months ago
Reply to  Alfred Chester

Johnson couldn’t make a decision to save his life. Authoritarianism was down to Cummings v Carrie.

JR Stoker
JR Stoker
2 months ago

The sad truth is that a free and open society only works if its members behave themselves. Which over the last two hundred years or so they mostly have in the UK.
If some become disruptive, even a tiny minority, then they end up restricting those very freedoms. That is to profoundly to be regretted, but to defend a free society then occasionally those freedoms have to be restricted. Ideally the police would be able to deal with the sort of disruption we are seeing at the moment, but they don’t seem to want to do that with their current powers, so essentially they are been given some minor amendments.
But a future government may think that such restraints maybe removed if things improve. I.e. if tolerance and behaviour improve.

Alfred Chester
Alfred Chester
2 months ago

The Tories have lost their way. If the right to free speech and protest aren’t British values worth conserving, what are.

Andrew Martin
Andrew Martin
2 months ago
Reply to  Alfred Chester

XR /Stop the Oil do not practise free speech/protest as any sane person knows. These people should serve custodial sentences. Fining them is of no consequence as their fines are paid for by Climate groups mostly from America.

bernard woods
bernard woods
1 month ago
Reply to  Andrew Martin

Comfortable people sat at home with their blinkers on don’t like their sheep like existence disturbed. We are destroying the planet for our grandchildren???. Protesters will be positively judged by history unlike the people sitting at home doing nothing.

stephen archer
stephen archer
2 months ago

Which groups constiute the majority who take part in disruptive protests in this country and have done for the last 60 years? Is it full time employees in professions, building workers, lorry drivers, housewives, 45% taxpayers, and the like? Or is it the unemployed, students, welfare cases and the ever present group of what I like to call “professional protesters”. It doesn’t matter what the cause is, if it’s global warming, CND, BLM, gender issues, general anti-establishment issues, it always seems to be the same kind of wooly headed, blinkered and “not smart casual dressed” who seem to proliferate and have nothing better to do. To class these as innocent members of the public is a sweeping generalisation. We maybe need a law and order regime which is 10% Putin and 90% democratic rights to balance things out.

David Kingsworthy
David Kingsworthy
2 months ago

The third use of the word innocent in this piece was the one that convinced me it wouldn’t be worth reading to the end.

Glyn R
Glyn R
2 months ago

Funny how no new laws were needed to suppress the anti-lockdown and anti-vaccine mandate protests. The police just put on the favourite black clobber and marched in wielding truncheons and arresting people left right and centre.

David Hope
David Hope
1 month ago

The police don’t need another law to deal with disruptive protest. They just need the resources to be able to do their job. We should beware the many small steps that allow a society to sleep walk into authoritarianism.

Kevin Jones
Kevin Jones
1 month ago

Can’t let the government do what they want, they need to remember they work for the people not against them