by Mark Johnson
Monday, 16
January 2023
Reaction
15:30

The Public Order Bill is a danger to protest rights

The Government's latest amendment will grant the state far too much power
by Mark Johnson
A Just Stop Oil protestor is escorted away by police. Credit: Getty.

As if lockdown laws, the Coronavirus Act, the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act and the Public Order Bill weren’t enough, the Government wants to create yet more restrictions on our civil liberties and our ability to protest. Through an amendment tabled to their own legislation, the Government will create lower thresholds at which the state can restrict or shut down demonstrations.

Rishi Sunak isn’t wrong when he says that the right to protest is a qualified right. That is why a vast web of laws already establishes where limits on this right lie. At present, the police may intervene and restrict a protest where it causes “serious disruption”.


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This in itself is already very broad criteria: for example, in November 2004 small groups of both pro-Israel and pro-Palestine protesters in Manchester demonstrated in close proximity to a retailer with whom one side had a grievance. Both sides exercised their democratic rights peacefully and neither engaged in the sort of tactics used by the likes of Just Stop Oil today.

But concerns over the likelihood that these groups might cause “serious disruption” to Christmas shoppers meant both sides were ordered to cease their activities on the site and move to a different location. As a result, the demonstrations ended and a court found the police’s actions to have been lawful.

If the phrase “serious disruption” can be invoked to justify the removal of small groups of peaceful protesters for the sake of a few Christmas shoppers, why does the Government need to broaden this definition even further?

In many respects, Sunak and his Home Secretary Suella Braverman are reopening debates held in Parliament less than a year ago. Back then, the Government already sought to add bells and whistles onto what constitutes “serious disruption” via the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act by including mention of the level of noise generated by any given protest as a factor to be considered. This debate reached a new level of absurdity when ministers debated with MPs as to whether the new “noise trigger” could be invoked if buildings in a locality have double or single glazing. “Serious disruption” is broad enough and the state needs no further powers to restrict our right to protest.

We should be deeply proud of our democracy here in the UK. The British traditions of peaceful dissent, freedom of expression and the impact that democratic precedents set in our country have had around the world are all admirable. We undermine all of this at our peril. When broad police powers to restrict our liberties are introduced, the consequence is that they will capture far more than just the activities of groups like Just Stop Oil. Further, when governments introduce powers to restrict our civil liberties, through legislation like the Public Order Bill, they create levers for all sorts of nefarious future administrations to pull.

We are now in a fourth calendar year of legislation which creates further restrictions on our right to protest, despite it being manifestly clear that the state has enough powers in this domain already. At what point will it stop?

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Matt M
Matt M
16 days ago

At what point will it stop?

As soon as the last eco-fanatic has been cleared off the streets and has stopped harassing blameless members of the public.
I don’t know whether the problem is the law or police indecision but something has allowed these toff-protestors to disrupt normal life for far too long.
Public protests should not cause any disruption and any protestors that do so should be nicked PDQ.

Christopher Peter
Christopher Peter
16 days ago

A question for Mark: if existing laws are striking the right balance between the right to free expression and lawful protest (which I certainly support) and the right of the law-abiding, non-protesting majority to go about their business, then why have groups like Extinction Rebellion been able to cause excessive disruption and risk to life by blocking roads, with the police apparently unable or unwilling to prevent them?
There are many ways to exercise your right to free speech and protest without causing disruption, inconvenience and risk to others. There will always be grey areas and legitimate debate about where the line is drawn in specific instances. However, there are too many examples of relatively small but highly vocal groups choosing to circumvent democracy and the law to try to get their way, with the general public caught in the middle. Trying to invoke the spectre of abuse by some future totalitarian dictatorship – even if a theoretical risk – does not seem the bigger problem right now, to be honest.

Jonathan Nash
Jonathan Nash
16 days ago

That is rather the point. The existing laws are more than sufficient to deal with the tactics pf XR and the like. Blocking thoroughfares and damaging property is illegal. The problem is that the Police have neither the courage nor the training to enforce the law; so we have more and more laws to try and encourage them to act.

Dougie Undersub
Dougie Undersub
16 days ago
Reply to  Jonathan Nash

Recent court judgements that the police acted unlawfully, causing prosecutions to fail, have made the police very reluctant to make arrests.

Jonathan Nash
Jonathan Nash
16 days ago

Yes I agree the magistrates have come out with some pretty bizarre rulings, and statements

Charles Hedges
Charles Hedges
16 days ago

Since the late 1960s large number of Trotskyists have entered The Law, Academia and Journalism. Labour Leaders such as Callaghan, former WW2 RN PO and Officer had no time for rent a rabble.
Trotskysist consider all property is theft; consider crime is an excusable reaction to class oppression, violent demonstrations are justified in fighting class oppression and desire to wage war on traditional, customes and values. Trotskyist influence is dominant in the Criminal Bar but minimal in the Commercial Bar

Tom Watson
Tom Watson
16 days ago

“If existing laws are striking the right balance between the right to free expression and lawful protest… then why have groups like Extinction Rebellion been able to cause excessive disruption?”

Because they’re unofficially above the law.

https://open.substack.com/pub/theupheaval/p/its-not-hypocrisy-youre-just-powerless/

Matt Hindman
Matt Hindman
16 days ago
Reply to  Tom Watson

We had a couple months of looting, rioting, and general violence in my country, but the powers that be decided it was not only not a big deal, they were actively encouraging it.

Glyn R
Glyn R
16 days ago

Witnessing events close at hand over the last three years one of my principal concerns is the flagrant bias in the way various different protests are handled.
The brutal way in which a few of the anti-lockdown protests were policed – ignored for the most part by the general media – was redolent of a police state: it left me shocked to the core and unable to reconcile what I had observed with my erstwhile belief that I had been richly blessed to be born into a free and democratic society that allowed and even expected strong expressions of dissent.
Having read the article on the WEF, something I had become aware of but the article clarified and deepened my understanding, and given the fact that other western governments are moving to suppress dissent (now termed mis and disinformation) it is clear that those with the power are expecting a growing awareness and potential civil unrest and so need to be one step ahead so they can suppress it as quickly and efficiently as any totalitarian state.
I’m sure there are many quite ignorant useful idiots in parliament who will aid and abet in the stripping away of hard won civil rights until we are entirely vulnerable to the dictats of whoever is in power.

Last edited 16 days ago by Glyn R
Andrew Wise
Andrew Wise
15 days ago
Reply to  Glyn R

Good points.
Is the real problem the capture of the establishment by ideas like XR? If police officers, their leaders, the judges etc all sympathise with ideas of XR it doesn’t matter how many laws there are to stop them.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
16 days ago

Isn’t enforcement and sentencing the real problem here? If the same kids are getting arrested 10 times a month at different protests, that tells me they don’t have a lot of widespread support for their cause and they aren’t being dissuaded by slaps on the wrist.

People should have the right to protest. It’s essential to democracy. But if a group of say 200 people are creating havoc for everyone else, that’s a problem.

AC Harper
AC Harper
16 days ago

At what point will it stop?

It will never stop because a centralising government (Left, Right, something else) will never hit ‘enough’. My suspicion is that ‘new laws’ are window dressing to show that ‘something is being done’ but without enforcement they are just theatre.
Perhaps we need a radical overhaul of the laws that already exist? But I suspect there are too many vested interests who prefer the costly, slow, and cumbersome justice system that already provides a living, a good living, for many.

Andrew Buckley
Andrew Buckley
16 days ago

Class action against the Police for not enforcing existing laws anyone?