Skip to main content

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

I rise to speak on Lords amendments 1, 5, 6 and 20, beginning with the definition of “serious disruption”.

Before I go into the detail, let me mention the publication in 2021 of Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary’s now widely debated report looking at protests and how the police response was working. Matt Parr, Her Majesty’s inspector of constabulary, called for a “modest reset” of the balance between police powers and the right to protest in order to respond to the changing nature of the protests we were seeing, which were sometimes dangerous; people were taking more risks. The suggestions included far more measures that were non-legislative than legislative, such as better training for police, better understanding of the law and a more sophisticated response to protests. What has followed has been a series of escalations of more and more unnecessary legislation that the police have not asked for and that will not have an impact on the actual challenge.

We have gathered to debate public order legislation many times in this House, and while there have been numerous Ministers, I have been here every single time. For our part, we suggested a modest reset of the laws, as suggested by Her Majesty’s inspectorate, with amendments making injunctions easier for local organisations to apply for and with stronger punishment for obstructing the highway. Our sensible amendments were rejected by the Government in favour of this raft of legislation, which now finds itself in ping-pong, because the House of Lords is quite rightly saying that these proposals are not necessary.

What do the Government think their amendments to the Lords amendments will actually deliver? Their impact assessment is quite clear. Let us look, for example, at the new offence of locking on, which is going to change everything, we are told. Let me quote:

“the number of additional full custody years”—

the number of prison years that will result from this new offence—

“lies within the range of zero to one”.

That is the impact this Bill will have: zero to one years of custodial sentences.

What about the serious disruption prevention orders we are debating today? How many custodial cases will they amount to? The answer is three to five. Well, that is all worth it then! The rights to be taken away, as Conservative and Opposition Members have so eloquently described, will be for three to five cases with custodial convictions a year.

The impact assessment is extraordinary.

Matt Parr of Her Majesty’s inspectorate clearly said that there was

“a wide variation in the number of specialist officers available for protest policing throughout England and Wales”,

and that

“Non-specialist officers receive limited training in protest policing.”

He made several recommendations about increased and better training. Have the Government listened to these sensible concerns? Not a bit. Their impact assessment states that the police will need seven minutes to understand this entire new Bill and to implement it fairly—seven minutes. The truth is that they do not listen to the police and they do not listen to what is actually needed; they just want a headline.

To pause for a minute, today we have all been appalled by the offences David Carrick was guilty of in the run-up to the murder of Sarah Everard, and these appalling sexual crimes and this epidemic of violence against women and girls needs a proper response, yet the Government are prioritising this legislation over a victims Bill.

Laws already exist to tackle protest that the police use every day. Criminal damage is an offence, as are conspiracy to cause damage, trespass, aggravated trespass, public nuisance, breach of the peace and obstruction of a highway—I could go on. In April 2019, 1,148 Extinction Rebellion activists were arrested and more than 900 were charged. In October 2019, 1,800 protesters were arrested. Many have been fined, and many have gone to prison. The impact assessment for this Bill suggests a few hundred arrests; the police are already making thousands. The powers are there for the police to use.

Turning to the definition of “serious disruption”, we must be clear about the history. The Opposition asked for a definition of “serious disruption” long ago in debates on what is now the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022. The Government said no, but then agreed to a definition in the Lords. It was not a very good one, and we tried to amend it. The police have asked us for greater clarity on the definition of “serious disruption” because the Government have drafted such poor legislation that it is important for them to interpret how and when they should and should not intervene. But the new definition appears to include as serious disruption situations such as if I have to step aside on a pavement to avoid a protestor. The police do not want to diminish people’s rights through this definition—they have said that time and again, and privately they think the Government are getting this wrong.

In the other place it was agreed that “prolonged disruption” was needed for a serious disruptive activity to have taken place, but the new Government amendment in lieu of Lords amendment 1 suggests that I would be causing serious disruption if I hindered an individual or organisation

“to more than a minor degree”.

That goes too far.