Ministers stoke ‘culture war’ as Lords reject proposals to curb protests

Jan 18, 2022 | Protest | 0 comments

Photo credit AFP

On Monday, the House of Lords voted on the parts of the government’s controversial Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill relating to protest. The Lords have rejected some of the draconian measures in the Bill, but left others intact. However, the government has suffered some serious defeats as the Lords struck down many of their proposals, and on Twitter, an outraged Home Secretary Priti Patel accused the Lords of siding with “thugs and vandals”

Here are the major changes to the Bill from the Lords vote:

  • Lords rejected proposals for new ‘Serious Disruption Prevention Orders’, modelled on Knife Crime Prevention Orders, which would impose restrictions on who activists suspected of planning disruptive protest can associate with, which events they could attend, and what they could post online. Peers voted against introducing these by 199 to 124.
  • Proposed new stop and search powers which would allow police to conduct ‘suspicionless’ searches at protests and demonstrations were rejected by 212 to 128.
  • The new criminal offences introduced in a bid to target climate campaigners have also been rejected. These include rejecting the proposal to create new offences of “obstructing major transport works” (208 votes against, 154 for), “interfering with the use or operation of key national infrastructure” (153 for, 198 against), and “locking on” (216 against, 163 for).
  • Peers voted to entirely remove highly controversial proposals to put noise conditions on protests and processions from the Bill. Clause 56 and 57 of the Bill would have allowed police officers to shut down protests if they were “noisy” and caused “disruption” or “distress” to those in the locale, and were defeated by a large majority (238 / 171 and 261 / 166 respectively).
  • Peers also voted to amend a proposed increase to the penalty for “wilfully obstructing the highway” so that it only applies to the Strategic Road Network, instead of all public highways (216 for, 160 against).
  • Peers voted to introduce the so-called ‘Hillsborough’ amendment, introducing a statutory ‘duty of candour’ requiring the police to collaborate with and tell the truth to public enquiries (252 for, 179 against). Netpol have previously called for this ‘duty of candour’ to extend to protest and public order policing.

While these changes represent a limited victory, Netpol are among the many who are still calling for the Bill to be scrapped in its entirety. While the Lords votes seek to soften the sharpest edges of the Bill, there is still the chance for the Bill to be amended against before it becomes an Act and many of the most racist features of the Bill are still in place.

These include moves to further criminalise Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities, making it possible to seize people’s homes and imprison them, and proposals for the new ‘Serious Violence Reduction Orders’ (SVROs) which would give police additional powers to harass Black men and which have only been amended, not removed.

Still included too are proposed changes to law around public nuisance which would criminalise causing “serious annoyance”, and a change to the Public Order Act which would make it easier to convict people of a criminal offence if they don’t comply with conditions imposed on demonstrations by the police. The current legislation meant that in order to convict you, the police had to prove that you knew about these conditions – new changes mean that you can commit a criminal offence if you don’t comply with restrictions you merely “ought to have known” about.

Stoking a culture war

The government response to the Lords votes has been an indication of how they see this Bill has an important element of the Conservatives’ desire to fight a culture war that means any protest involving civil disobedience or direct action (no matter how peaceful) is in Priti Patel’s words the work of “vandals and thugs”.

It therefore seems likely ministers will fight tooth and nail to give senior police officers the sweeping anti-protest powers they have lobbied for. Anyone doubting the government intends to portray the exercise of freedom of assembly as some kind of liberal frivolity should note this statement by Baroness Williams: “The arguments deployed here tonight are about the middle classes trying to stop working people going to work.”

In an apparent reference to the coronavirus pandemic – an issue that ministers are desperate to push criticism onto others at the moment – Conservative Party Chair Oliver Dowden went further and claimed opponents of the Bill in the House of Lords “voted to make it to harder for the British people to get on with their lives”.

We’ll be following and reporting on the final stages of the Bill as it continues its way through Parliament, and you can find our two-part explainer of the Policing Bill and the government amendments to it on our blog.

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