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Public Order Act 2023 | Commons debates

We have debated at great length the right balance—when protest becomes too much and against the law, and when it does not. When people are shouting, as they do all the time in Parliament Square, we find it annoying, but it is their right to make noise, so long as they are not infringing people’s rights. We debated that endlessly during the passage of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill.

Considering the scope and low bar of most of the powers in the Public Order Act, reporting on their potential misuse or wrong application is even more important. We set out again and again the many laws that already exist to ensure that the police can act: obstruction of a highway, criminal damage, conspiracy to cause criminal damage, trespass, aggravated trespass, public nuisance, conspiracy to cause public nuisance, breach of the peace, and intention to prevent another person from going about his lawful business.

We looked carefully at all the measures the Government suggested. Would they solve the problem that they were introduced to fix? In the majority of cases, the answer was no. It was not the minor reset called for by His Majesty’s inspectorate, but a root and branch upheaval—a serious disruption to our protest laws. We voted against the Public Order Bill again and again. We suggested many amendments, we supported Lords amendments and we agreed with hon. Members on all sides of the House, but still the Government forced their measures through.

Yesterday, a former Cabinet Minister told the Tory fringe that

“the surrender to the blob risks exposing the Government to ridicule.”

He was perhaps missing the point. The Government have not succumbed to a blob; the Government are the blob. It is the Government who are taking away our freedom, circumventing democracy by passing laws through secondary legislation—as they did just before the coronation—and threatening to lock people up for having string in their bags.

We expect poor behaviour from the Government, but I am disappointed with the SNP. During the passage of the Bill, SNP Members made some principled arguments and engaged seriously with its content, but today is nothing more than a political stunt. SNP Members know full well that the Public Order Act does not apply in large part to Scotland. As the Minister said, the SNP and the Scottish Parliament passed a legislative consent motion on the Public Order Bill agreeing to the small number of parts that affect Scotland.

SNP Members know that they do not have the numbers to repeal or amend this legislation next week. It is just a stunt. Understandably, SNP Members are on a mission to distract from the spectacle of police digging up the former First Minister’s lawn, the talk of burner phones and clandestine camper vans, and the outrage of senior party figures being arrested. But we will not dignify this stunt with our support.

What would Labour do with this mess? We will not introduce legislation for the sake of it and ignore the real problems, like this Government have done. We would do three things. Our first priority would be to make our streets safe again: cut knife crime, halve violence against women and girls, and put 13,000 police back on our streets. That will be the golden thread running through everything we do.

Secondly, we will have to untangle the mess the Government have made, look at the raft of unnecessary legislation this Government have brought in, and work with the police to make sure that that delicate balance between people and the police is maintained. We will want to change suspicionless stop and search, where anyone can be stopped for any reason just because a protest could be happening nearby, and intention to lock on, where anyone with a bicycle lock, a ball of string or luggage straps can be arrested just because a protest could be happening nearby, as happened at the coronation. We will look at serious disruption prevention orders, where someone can have seriously restricted conditions imposed on them before they commit any offence at all, which is the same way the Government treat violent criminals and terrorists. We will want to keep buffer zones around abortion clinics, which the Government resisted for years, and the new measures to protect journalists.

Thirdly and finally, our approach to the police will not be the hands-off, push-blame-out and take-no-leadership approach we see under the Tories, who cut 20,000 police and were surprised when the arrest rate plummeted. We will have an active Home Office that enables our police to do their jobs to the highest standards, with no more excuses.

There is a careful balance between the right for people to protest and gather, and the right of others to go about their daily business. It is paramount that we protect public infrastructure, our national life and our communities from serious disruption, just as it is paramount that we protect the freedom to protest.

The coronation of King Charles III, which I was privileged to attend, involved the largest police effort ever undertaken, and I pay tribute to the police officers who ensured that so many people were able to safely enjoy such a historic occasion. However, there were problems with a handful of people being arrested under the new law and held for hours, who had been trying to protest or even trying to attend the coronation. We had warned the Government again and again that their measures were too broad, and it would seem we were right.

Some protests go too far—I make no apologies for saying that. To see a painting splattered with paint: too far. To see ambulances blocked on roads: too far. The Labour party has always stood with the people of this country in saying that such disruptive activities are unacceptable. It is our job as legislators to come up with proposals that solve problems, not create them.

It is also our job to be serious about governing and not to throw political stunts. We refuse to be drawn into the political games of two parties that are paralysed by crises of their own making. On every single one of the 20 or more occasions that I have stood in the Chamber to debate these Bills, Labour has demonstrated our serious approach to legislation. We do not take our responsibilities as the Opposition lightly, and we will not take our responsibilities lightly in government.