The Public Order bill is a human rights disaster

IssueApril - May 2023
News by PN staff

As PN went to press, the Public Order bill was on its way to becoming law.

While the House of Lords did make some changes to this repressive legislation, the bill as a whole remains a ‘staggering escalation of the government’s clampdown on protest’.

That was the description given at the end of January in a joint parliamentary briefing from Amnesty International UK, Liberty, Big Brother Watch, Greenpeace, the Black Equity Organisation, Netpol (the Network for Police Monitoring), the TUC and dozens of other organisations.

The bill, put forward last May, reintroduces many measures that the lords rejected in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act (which became law in April 2022).

These included widening the powers of stop-and-search, so that the police can carry out such searches if they think that a person might commit a protest-related offence – if a senior officer has made a relevant order for that place and time.

The Public Order bill also adds new offences such as: ‘locking-on’ (people attaching themselves to immovable objects or to each other by chains, glue or maybe even duct tape); ‘going equipped to lock-on’; causing serious disruption by tunnelling; obstructing major transport routes; and interfering with key national infrastructure.

These measures are clearly aimed at the sort of actions being carried out by climate activists.

The bill also creates the ‘serious disruption prevention order’ (SDPO), which effectively bans you from taking part in protest. You might be forced to wear an electronic tag to monitor your movements if you’re subject to an SDPO.

The House of Lords considered the bill in late January and February and made a lot of amendments.

One was that people could only be served with SDPOs if they had been convicted of another protest-related offence in the past five years or been found in contempt of court for breaching a protest-related injunction.

The lords also removed the power for the police to conduct suspicionless stop-and-searches for protest-related items.

They also added a new clause prohibiting the police from preventing journalists and others monitoring protests from reporting on, or monitoring, either the protest or the policing of the protest.

The government were forced to accept that a person served with an SDPO could not be made to wear an electronic tag – and such an order could only be renewed once.

On 7 March, the bill returned to the House of Commons where MPs voted to restore the police power to conduct suspicionless stop-and-search for protest-related items and rejected other amendments.

When the bill went back to the lords for the last time on 14 March, only one amendment was passed. This means that only chief inspectors can authorise suspicionless protest-related stop-and-searches, and the time period for such powers was reduced from 24 hours to 12 hours.

It seems we are we are going to be left with a law seriously limiting the right to public protest, almost as draconian as the original bill.

Topics: Human rights, Police