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

I will come to new clause 11 shortly, and express my support and our support for that new clause. We have supported it many times in many different forms through many different debates.

The Labour party, last April, called for greater injunction powers following the disruption by Just Stop Oil, when millions of people could not access fuel. We argued that the raft of existing powers could be used more effectively. We suggested injunctions because they are more likely to prevent further disruption to, say, an oil terminal than more offences to criminalise conduct after it has taken place, with all the added costs and logistics of removal. Injunctions are more straightforward for the police, they have more safeguards as they are granted by a court, and they are future-proof when protesters change tactics.

Police officers have told us that some of the most effective measures they use in the face of potential serious disruption are injunctions. The National Police Chiefs’ Council protests lead, Chris Noble, said that

“they can be very useful in terms of what we are trying to control and how we are trying to shape…behaviour.”––[Official Report, Public Order Public Bill Committee, 9 June 2022; c. 8, Q7.]

In Kingsbury with Just Stop Oil and on the M25 with insulate Britain, people were arrested, removed and charged for breaching injunctions.

We introduced a new clause in Committee to bring what is known as the Canada Goose case into law. The Canada Goose case allowed injunctions to be taken out against persons unknown. This means that when groups of protesters form outside, the applicant does not have to know all their names or the names of people who may come in the future. Sadly, in Committee, the Government voted against our injunctions new clause. They said it would not create meaningful change.

The Government have since had a change of heart, however—another U-turn from the Government—but our suggestions for injunctions are still not being supported; they have introduced their own in new clauses 7 and 8. We believe these new clauses are flawed in several ways. First, there are some drafting problems, and lawyers we have spoken to are unclear on what the legal basis of an injunction would be. Secondly, we have concerns about placing the responsibility and power in the hands of the Home Secretary. Thirdly, we have concerns about where the burden of cost will fall; at a very difficult economic time, the Government can through this Bill shift financial responsibility from the private sector to the public sector, and that needs to be looked at.

In Committee, we heard evidence from HS2, who were in the process of applying for a route-wide injunction to protect their sites from serious disruption. This has now been granted by the High Court. The documents detailing the High Court decision show that the judge granted it partly on the basis that it satisfied the requirements of the Canada Goose case, the guidelines set by the Court of Appeal. Our new clause 4 puts on to the statue books the Canada Goose case law principles. Surely the Minister does not oppose principles set by the Court of Appeal; why does he not look again at Labour’s sensible amendment to tackle serious disruption?

Our new clause 5 seeks to make a simple but important change. The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022 contains a definition of serious disruption—after we called on the Government to define it as they had not done so originally. That definition includes “noise generated by people”. We want that definition removed, so that when the police are deciding what constitutes serious disruption, they cannot do this on noise alone. We have all debated this many times in the House and I will not repeat the arguments we have made. Instead, I will quote the current Foreign Office Minister, the right hon. Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire (Jesse Norman), who said in a letter to the previous Prime Minister:

“No genuinely Conservative government should have supported the recent ban on noisy protest—least of all when basic human freedoms are facing the threat of extinction in Ukraine.”

We agree with him and tonight the Government have the chance to do so too and to right that wrong. Surely, the Prime Minister, fixated supposedly on freedom, would want to defend the right to chant and sing at a protest, just like she did as a child against the party she now leads.

Since we now have a new Home Secretary, perhaps these words from the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May) are worth her also bearing in mind:

“It is tempting when Home Secretary to think that giving powers to the Home Secretary is very reasonable, because we all think we are reasonable, but future Home Secretaries may not be so reasonable.”—[Official Report, 15 March 2021; Vol. 691, c. 78.]

That has never been more the case than now.

This Bill gives the police wide-ranging powers 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 desks in the Cabinet Office. But these far-reaching powers to stop and search without suspicion go too far. We know the police will not feel comfortable using them—we have spoken to several who have said the same—and in an area of policing already prone to disproportionality, they represent a disproportionate way of preventing what is in the vast majority of cases a minor public order offence at most.

In the same way, a serious disruption prevention order, also introduced in this Bill, treats a peaceful protestor, who in some instances will have committed no crime, as if they were a terrorist. Is that what the Home Secretary really thinks? Does she really want her Government to be responsible for treating peaceful, if admittedly annoying, protestors like serious criminals? The SDPO is draconian, preventing people from going to places and seeing people when they have not even committed a crime. And we must remember that to be eligible for an SDPO, serious disruption does not even need to have occurred; as the Bill states, I could be given an SDPO if I helped someone else do something which was

“likely to result in, serious disruption to two or more individuals”.

The phrase “likely to result in” amounts in real world terms to absolutely nothing, and just two people being required to experience, or being likely to experience but not actually experiencing, serious disruption is too low a bar.

On new clause 11, everyone has a right to access healthcare without fear of intimidation. The same principles applied when we had debates in this place about buffer zones—public space protection orders—outside vaccine centres when there were protests against people having their vaccine. Access to healthcare is a fundamental right and we must safeguard it. Many Members have been making this argument for many years in many different ways. The shadow Home Secretary has been calling for it since 2014. I have only been in Parliament since 2017 and we debated it in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022 and we do it again now. The Minister has the opportunity to do some good here; I think there is agreement on that on both sides of the House.

We all agree that the disruption we have seen from the small groups of hard-line protesters is unacceptable, whether blocking ambulances or stopping people getting to work for long periods of time, but our job as legislators is to come up with proposals that will actually help. It is our jobs to be grown-ups. This Government have created a piece of legislation that is disproportionate and threatens our unique model of policing by consent. In the evidence sessions, Sir Peter Fahy, a very well-respected former chief constable, spoke to us about the British style of policing. He said that we do not live in France or any other country with a paramilitary aspect to their policing and that

“in our policing system…policing is by consent… There would need to be a huge shift in the public mood and I think British policing is not really set up and does not have the mentality to use the degree of force that you see in other countries.

People do not realise that we are pretty unique…that is the British style”.––[Official Report, Public Order Public Bill Committee, 9 June 2022; c. 62, Q122.]

The Government would do well to listen to Sir Peter’s warnings. They are undermining that style of policing and upsetting that careful balance between the police and the people, and the fine line between being popular and populist. We are not the French. At a time when the economy is crashing and inflation is soaring, Ministers are choosing to spend precious parliamentary time trying to create political and cultural dividing lines, to chase headlines instead of actually finding sensible and workable solutions. The Government should rethink this flawed legislation.