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Public Order Act 2023 | Commons debates

Here we are again. I have made more than 20 speeches on public order legislation over the last two years, through the passage of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill and the recently passed Public Order Bill. No MP has debated public order more times than me. Ministers are here one day and gone the next, as always with this ever-revolving door of weak government, but I have been here and I am weary of a Government who have refused to listen to hon. Members on their own side, to hon. Members on the Opposition Benches, to the public and to many current and former police officers. Instead, they have chosen headlines over common sense, party interest over freedom, and strict limitations over liberty.

Then again, perhaps none of that is surprising given the extraordinary rhetoric coming out of the National Conservatism conference over the last couple of days. Even the readers of “ConservativeHome” have described it as utter nonsense. The right hon. Member for North East Somerset (Mr Rees-Mogg), astonishingly, admitted to his party’s own gerrymandering through voter ID at elections. The Government appear to be fighting democracy, whether on voter ID or unnecessary restrictions on the right to protest. We are all watching on as the Conservative party loses its way in real time.

Our essential case on public order has always been this: in his review of protest powers, the inspector, Matt Parr, called for a minor reset in the balance between police powers and protester powers. That followed protests that involved people attaching themselves to infrastructure and gluing themselves to roads. Of course, protesters must not grind our infrastructure to a halt or put themselves or others in danger by gluing themselves to motorways. The police must take swift and robust action when people break the law. The legal system must respond and ensure there is appropriate punishment.

We did not disagree that a minor reset might be required. To that end, we suggested new powers to make it easier to take out injunctions, which the Government rejected. We tabled amendments that aimed to give the police better training, as the inspector recommended, better understanding of the law and a more sophisticated response to long protests. We worked to minimise the negative impact of serious disruption prevention orders after our efforts to remove them entirely did not pass.

We won important votes in this place, such as to amend the Public Order Bill so that buffer zones of 150 metres around abortion clinics are now law. That is a vital step forward that protects those going through a potentially traumatic experience from harassment, unlike in Scotland where the SNP is failing to make that a priority, and recently disbanded its own Government working group on the issue. Perhaps women in Scotland might benefit if it focused less on political stunts and more on using its actual powers.

We put forward measures in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill on vaccine clinics to ensure that people could not be targeted by harassment and intimidation. We supported new protections introduced into the Public Order Bill in the House of Lords for journalists reporting on protests, because a free press is a hallmark of a democratic society, as is the right to protest.