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Clause 9 – Offence of interference with access to or provision of abortion services | Public Order Bill | Commons debates

The hon. Gentleman has made many good points already this afternoon, and I entirely agree;

“more than a minor degree”

is way too low a bar to allow these interventions. Many Members and many watching the debate would have fallen foul of this law.

The amendment is drawn so widely that it is almost meaningless. As the hon. Gentleman said, when there are protests on Whitehall, near Parliament Square, there can be large crowds, and banners and speeches, so they are noisy. In 1 Parliament Street, where my office is, we have to shut the windows, which is irritating, but we are not hindered to the extent that we expect police interference. There are so many scenarios that could come under the scope of this definition that would render it ludicrous.

If I chain myself to a tree to protest at a new road and a couple of people are unable to cross a road to go to the supermarket, is that more than a minor disruption, or not? We have to remember that serious disruption, however it is defined—and I argue that here it is defined without any legal certainty—does not have to happen for offences under the Bill to be committed. This sloppiness and breadth of drafting is unacceptable, and the police do not want it. They just want clarity, and this will not bring clarity.

Turning to suspicionless stop and search, the Government have tabled a motion to disagree with Lords amendment 6. The motion would reinsert wide-ranging powers for the police to stop and search anyone in the vicinity of a protest, for example shoppers passing a protest against a library closure, tourists walking through Parliament Square, or civil servants walking to their office. If there is a large crowd in Parliament Square and a tourist gets caught up in it, they could be stopped; they could have no idea what is going on, and would be an offence to resist.

Stop and search is disproportionately used against black people in this country. Do Members on the Government Benches really want to pass legislation for powers that risk further damaging the relationship between the police and our communities? Instead of actually targeting serious gun crime, serious knife crime or terrorism, the Government are choosing to focus on stopping and searching people who may or may not be taking part in a protest. That is not proportionate.

Former police officers have warned that these powers risk further diminishing trust in public institutions. That will put the police in a difficult position, and it risks undermining the notion of policing by consent. Members of the other place were right to remove the powers to stop and search without suspicion, and the Government are wrong to put them back in.

We agree with what the Government have done with regard to the journalists clause and amendment (a) in lieu of Lords amendment 17. The right to protest is a hard-won democratic freedom that many have fought for in our history, and many are fighting for it in other parts of the world. A free press is another hallmark of our democratic society. The amendment will not prevent the police from responding to someone who is causing trouble and happens to be a journalist, but, crucially, it will allow reporters to observe and report to the wider public about the happenings of a protest. Considering the scope, breadth and low bar of most of the powers in the Bill, reporting on their potential misuse or wrong application is even more important. That is a power that must be protected, so we welcome the Government’s amendment in lieu of Lords amendment 17.

We are fundamentally against the principle of serious disruption prevention orders. We do not agree with them on conviction and we certainly do not agree with them not on conviction. The Government have tabled a motion to disagree with Lords amendment 20 and tabled their own amendment in lieu. That reinstates but limits the ability to apply an SDPO to someone without a protest-related conviction. We welcome the fact that the Government have accepted that their initial draft was overreaching and unnecessary. However, we do not support the five-year conviction compromise that they suggest. Problems remain, in that police could still apply for a SDPO to prevent a person from carrying out activities that are merely likely to result in serious disruption to two or more individuals or an organisation. The Met police commissioner said that

“policing is not asking for new powers to constrain protests”,

but SDPOs on conviction unfortunately remain in the Bill. An SDPO treats a peaceful protestor like the Government treat terrorists. Does the Minister really want to treat peaceful protestors, however annoying they may be, as serious criminals?

On buffer zones, the Opposition do not agree with amendment (a) to Lords amendment 5. It is important to remember that we have already voted on this issue in this place. We voted to introduce buffer zones and in the other place the Conservative peer Baroness Sugg did a very good job of tidying up the Bill. We have already voted in both Houses to introduce what we now call safe access zones. Lords amendment 5 is really important, creating a 150-metre safe access zone around abortion clinics to stop the intimidation and harassment of women and healthcare professionals. The proposed changes to the amendment would risk preventing people from getting the medical support they need.