In March 2021, the Government proposed a Bill that would broaden police powers when responding to public protests. The response was mixed and included concerns that the Bill would unduly curb our civil liberties. In September, we submitted an open letter on behalf of our clients to Members of Parliament and the House of Lords, outlining our objections to the proposals as advocates for animals. We requested that the recipients vote against the Bill in relation to its provisions on protest and nuisance. In this post, guest writer Siobhan Ballan looks at where the Bill is now, and why animal advocates should keep the pressure on to ensure that the offending provisions do not end up being enshrined in statute.
What were the problems with the proposed Bill?
The existing law already places wide restrictions on peaceful procession, assembly and protest. For example, the police are able to ban demonstrations with permission from the local authority and can arrest those who use threatening language or behaviour under the Public Order Act 1986. Details of planned marches must be given at least a week in advance, including the proposed route and names of addresses of at least one organiser.
However, the proposed Bill sought to take these powers further, for example, by introducing an offence of ‘public nuisance’ carrying a maximum sentence of ten years’ imprisonment. It also proposed to remove the need to knowingly breach conditions imposed by the police in order to commit an offence and to place new conditions on both static (standing) protests and marches. The wording of these conditions was vague and included whether the noise level from the protest would cause, or was even just at risk of causing, ‘serious distress’ or alarm. A primary concern from our point of view was that the Government would be able to define these terms without parliamentary scrutiny.
Which amendments to the Bill were defeated?
The Bill came up for debate in the House of Lords on 17 January 2022. A total of fourteen of the Government’s proposals were rejected during the vote which followed. In particular, the plans to give police more powers to cancel protests on the grounds of them being too noisy or disruptive were voted down by 261 votes to 166. The proposal to allow police to stop and search a person or vehicle if it was suspected that they were planning an offence, such as causing serious disruption, was also rejected. Further, police will not be empowered to stop and search anyone at a protest ‘without suspicion’, and peers voted to protect Parliament Square as a place to protest. Finally, in another rejection of the proposals, those with a history of causing disruption will not be banned from attending future protests.
In all, the debate resulted in a victory for all who opposed the proposed measures in light of the serious concerns they raised about the status of our civil liberties in the UK. There was cross-party support for rejecting many of the proposals, with Conservative peer Lord Deben commenting that “we are a democratic society and if I can’t go outside and make a noise to point out that I think that a whole range of things that the Government or any government does are unacceptable, then my human rights are very seriously impugned.” This sentiment was backed by Green Party peer Baroness Jones, who commented that the Government’s attempts to curb protests on grounds of noisiness were “plain nasty.”
What happens next?
It is likely that some of these provisions will re-emerge in subsequent debates on the Bill during what’s known as ‘ping-pong’, this being the ongoing exchange of proposed amendments and votes between the House of Lords and the House of Commons. The current parliamentary session finishes in late March or April. MP’s have until then to decide on the final details of the Bill.
Advocates should be aware that although some of the most concerning elements of the proposed Bill were defeated, they may still find their way into law. The Government may try to frame its rejected proposals as part of a free-standing public order Bill, as opposed to being part of the already expansive Police, Crime, Sentencing & Courts Bill.
This post is not legal advice and should not be relied on as such. If you require legal advice on animal protection laws please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.