Skip to main content

New Clause 7 – Power of Secretary of State to bring proceedings | Public Order Bill | Commons debates

I thank the Minister for his intervention, and I will shortly come on to speak about the powers that already exist and what I think we need to do to make sure that we have the best system we can have.

I think the reason we are here debating this legislation is that we are not currently governed by grown-ups who understand the serious and delicate balance between policing and protest. We are governed by people who seek to win through division, by pitting one group against another and by wilfully threatening the delicate balance of policing by consent that marks out our form of policing from French, Spanish or Italian paramilitary-style police forces.

On a wider point briefly, if I may, where I wonder are the Government’s priorities when it comes to policing and crime more generally? Why is the Home Secretary doing nothing on the appallingly low charge rates for rape and sexual offences? Why is the Home Secretary doing nothing about the worrying levels of violent crime? What about the thousands of criminals going unpunished, or the victims withdrawing from the investigation process because they do not believe they will see justice? The people’s priorities are not this Government’s priorities, and that is the sad truth.

This careful balance between the right to protest, to speak or to gather and the rights of others to go about their daily business is complicated. It is paramount that we protect vital public infrastructure, our national life and community from serious disruption, but it is also vital that we ensure the right to freedom of speech and the right to protest. We believe that this Bill gets that balance wrong.

Many of the provisions in this Bill in effect replicate laws already in place that the police can and do already use. It is already an offence to obstruct a highway—an offence that can lead to a prison sentence. There is already an offence of criminal damage or conspiracy to cause criminal damage, which can also lead to a prison sentence. Public nuisance is an offence, and that can lead to a prison sentence. Aggravated trespass is an offence, which can also lead to a prison sentence. In 2021, 293 charges were brought against 117 Insulate Britain activists for public nuisance, criminal damage and wilful obstruction of the highway, and many protesters at oil terminals have been charged with aggravated trespass in the last year.

If we look further back into history, we find examples of peaceful lock-on protests and of the police making good use of the powers available to them when they needed to. At Greenham Common peace camp, for example, the police did intervene when they needed to, and they arrested and charged people. We could ask the Prime Minister, because she was there. Only last week, the Home Secretary, before tweeting that the police needed extra powers on protest, congratulated the police on making over 300 arrests. The flaw in the argument is gaping.