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by Louise Wilson
26 October 2022
In context: Public Order Bill

In context: Public Order Bill

The bill to crack down on protests passed in the Commons last week by 283 votes to 234 – but why is it so controversial?

What’s in it?

Dubbed the anti-protest bill, the legislation aims to end any protests which are considered disruptive to public order. It does this by creating a new offence relating locking-on tactics deployed by protesters, extending police stop and search powers to allow officers to conduct suspicion-less searches, and introducing Serious Disruption Prevent Orders to prohibit individuals from attending protests or even being with particular people.

Why has it been brought forward?

Essentially the UK Government wants to put a stop to action by groups such as Extinction Rebellion or Just Stop Oil which have, in recent months, caused chaos. Cities have been brought to standstill and transport routes have been impacted by people gluing themselves to roads and other infrastructure in a bid to grab headlines for their cause. A ring of protesters even glued themselves in a chain around the Speaker’s chair in the Commons last month, and of course there is the notorious soup/Van Gogh incident.

Former home secretary Priti Patel, who introduced the bill in June, said it would put a stop to “criminal, disruptive and self-defeating guerrilla tactics, carried out by a selfish few in the name of protest”.

Who’s against it?

According to Suella Braverman, who was home secretary at the time the bill was ungoing its third reading, only “Guardian-reading, tofu-eating wokerati” would argue against it. Only Conservative MPs and one independent voted for it though – Labour, the SNP and the Lib Dems all voted against.

Some Tory backbenchers also raised concerns, though only three ultimately voted against the proposals. Charles Walker MP said the idea of orders to ban individuals attending protests “leave me absolutely cold” because “there are plenty of existing laws that can be utilised to deal with people who specialise in making other people’s lives miserable”.

Outside of parliament, human rights groups, climate activists, lawyers, faith groups and community organisations have also been critical of the bill. They warned it will have serious implications for free speech and the right to protest.

While the government insist it would not affect “peaceful protest”, organisations like Amnesty International say it will “create a significant chilling effect on our ability to stand up to power… as well as sweeping more and more people into the criminal justice system for doing so.”

Didn’t I hear something about abortion clinics?

Yes – one of the amendments supported by MPs will see buffer zones introduced around abortion clinics and hospitals in England and Wales. It would make it an offence to intimidate or harass women accessing abortion care.

What about strike action?

Another major part of the bill is to create a new offence on interfering with or obstructing national infrastructure. There have been concerns this would therefore cover, for example, the rail strikes which have seen multiple days with almost no train services.

But the bill is not intended to be used to respond to strike action – instead Braverman said the government is investigating other legal moves which would see a minimum service level requirement introduced to cover strike days.

Will the bill apply in Scotland?

Since the bill covers policing and transport matters – both devolved areas – none of it will apply in Scotland. However, as the SNP’s Joanna Cherry and Lib Dem Wendy Chamberlain pointed out in the debate, it will cover Scots when they travel south of the border to protest. It will also mean extra training is required for Police Scotland officers when they are deployed to police protests in England and Wales.

What happens next?

The bill still has to go through the House of Lords before it becomes law. Parts of it are likely to face significant opposition – for example the introduction of Serious Disruption Prevent Orders. The government previously tried to pass a similar measure to ban individuals from attending protests in its Police, Crime, Sentence and Courts Act, but that section was removed by an amendment in the Lords.

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