Public Order Bill Explainer

Voice4Change England is deeply concerned with the chilling effect the Public Order Bill will have on the role that civil society can play in a vibrant and robust liberal democracy. It is also fears that this legislation will deter and criminalise Black and Minoritised communities to participate in the freedom of assembly.

Background

Throughout much of 2021 and 2022, parliament saw the passage of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill. Arguably the government saw its worst defeats on this bill in the Lords due to the Orwellian nature of some of the clauses. The second chamber, time and time again, removed the worst of the anti-protest proposals. The bill gave rise to the #KillTheBill movement and hence this developed into a whole year of resistance.


In an attempt to stifle dissent and opposition to legislation, the government wanted to give police more powers to shut down protests it doesn't like and criminalise demonstrators. We believe this will send a chilling effect on role civil society can play in holding the executive to account.


The government responded by inserting numerous clauses at the last minute in an unparliamentary manner to avoid scrutiny from the commons. These very clauses which were rejected (Obstructing major transport works, Interference w/ key infrastructure, heightened Stop and search, Protest banning orders) will now form part of the Public Order Bill. The rise of environmental activism in obstructing national infrastructure has spurred them to push forward with this legislation.


Summary

These draconian proposals that form part of the bill, it must be said, have been rejected by the public, NGOs, academics and the House of Lords when Gov tried earlier this year. Find below some of the clauses that will curtail the freedom to assemble and protest:


Locking on

A lock-on is a technique used by protesters to make it difficult to remove them from their place of protest. It often involves improvised or specially designed and constructed hardware or hand grip to delay the removal of a protest.


The government is looking to make this a criminal offence if this act causes a ‘serious disruption’ to 2 or more people or to an organisation in a public place. The punishment for locking could be up to 51 weeks in prison, a fine or both. This could translate into a human chain being deemed unlawful, and the ‘Locking on’ does not necessarily have to be causing ‘serious disruption’ but just be capable of it.


Not withstanding the fact that the Policing Bill gives the Home Secretary power to define 'serious disruption', the government has remarked that there is a caveat which is that ‘locking on’ is acceptable if a ‘reasonable excuse’ is given. This ambiguous stipulation will only deter protest and hollow out the veracity of it.


Furthermore, if you are found to be equipped to lock on then that will also qualify as an offence. This means merely being caught with super glue on your person will mean you can be detained.


Protest Banning Orders

Serious Disruption Prevention Orders (SDPOs) can be imposed on people who have taken part in 2 or more protests in a 5-year period.


They can be imposed either when someone is convicted of an offence or not. This will only serve to stifle activism and paralyse sustained protests on single issue causes. People given an SDPO will be subject to a set of conditions including:

  • not associating with certain people

  • not going to certain places

  • not carrying certain items

  • not using the internet in a certain way

These are effectively protest banning orders similar to the football banning orders (FBO’s) introduced which as history tell us is tantamount to state surveillance as what comes with this legal instrument is body-worn video, increased CCTV, plain-clothed police officers and informants.


Ultimately, it is conceivable that someone who attended 2 protests and who was only likely to cause ‘serious disruption’ could serve up to 51 weeks in prison, receive a fine and are unable to attend another protest for 5 years.


Obstruction of Major Transport Works & Interference with key national infrastructure

This new offence will be if a person commits an act against a construction worker and obstructs any major transport works. It also makes it an offence to merely be obstructing ‘any steps in connection with the construction or maintenance of any major transport works.


Key national infrastructure = road transport, rail, air transport, harbour, downstream oil, downstream gas, onshore oil and gas exploration and production, electricity generating, and newspaper printing infrastructure. Not only is this incredibly expansive, but also goes contradicts the Supreme Court’s ruling that the right to protest covers seriously disruptive protest.


Expanding Stop and Search

The police will be able to stop and search a person or vehicle if they reasonably suspect they’ll find an item intended for use in connection with:

  • wilful obstruction of the highway

  • intentionally or recklessly causing public nuisance

  • locking on

  • obstruction of major transport works

  • interfering with key national infrastructure

This bizarrely could mean being stopped for possessing fliers, placards, banners etc. It also means that the police can stop a protest happening before its even got going, this will surely incentivise state surveillance on activists and cause a chilling effect to extra-parliamentary action.


The most anti-democratic of measures in the bill is that a police officer of or above the rank of inspector can authorise police officers to stop and search a vehicle of person without suspicion in particular place for a specified period of time.


This is a huge expansion of stop and search powers which are already used disproportionately against black and ethnic minorities communities. Latest stats show Black people are 7 times more likely to be stopped and searched than white people - expanding these powers will further entrench discrimination. The suspicion -less stop and search powers can be in force for up to 24 hours (and can be extended by a further 24 hours if authorised by an officer of the rank of superintendent or above).


Reaction

In a Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services report one police officer stated that when policing protests "a little inconvenience is more acceptable than a police state". HMICFRS agreed.


The Guardian said “Progressive gains such as women’s right to vote, legalisation of trade unions and the decriminalisation of same-sex relationships are among laws that would probably not have happened without the type of protest the government is due to make illegal.”


Greenpeace said “The right to protest is one of the safety valves of our democracy. It allows ordinary people to protect their health, families and homes from harm when all other safeguards have failed. The government’s attempt to criminalise peaceful dissent is a threat to everyone’s right to stand up for what they believe in. Time and again, it’s activism that has dragged a reluctant UK government into confronting vital issues, whether it’s the climate crisis or women’s rights.”


Insulate Britain said: “Whilst the government continues the process of criminalising ordinary people, the criminals in charge of our government are in the process of destroying this country. Granting 41 new oil and gas licences is an act of war upon the poor of the global south and the people here in the UK. The new laws will change nothing. How many will be locked up until we realise there’s a problem society needs to address?”


The SNP MP Peter Grant added: “Q – What do votes for women, the abolition of slavery, legalisation of trade unions and the decriminalisation of same sex relationships have in common? A – None of them would have happened if people hadn’t protested in a way that the Tories want to make illegal.”


The Labour MP Jon Trickett said: “The Tories are planning to further restrict the right to protest with a new public order bill. Rather than tackling injustice, they suppress dissent.”


Government Reaction

Priti Patel said: “As the Queen’s speech outlined, the public order bill backs the police to prevent antisocial protests from disrupting people’s lives.” The home secretary hailed the “new criminal offences for ‘locking on’ and interfering with national infrastructure, and serious disruption prevention orders for reoffenders”.


The government has carried out an equality impact assessment and has concluded that “they are not aware of any evidence to suggest that any of these measures will be directly discriminatory on the grounds of race.”


In 2020/21, Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic people were 3.5 times more likely to be stopped and searched than White people. For Black people specifically, this was 7 times more likely, and Black people were also 14 times more likely than White people to be searched under suspicion-less stop and search powers granted under section 60 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994.


Despite this the government claimed that “This evidence relates to the use of stop and search by police to tackle serious violence and drug offences. There is no evidence to suggest that the use of stop and search powers in relation to the public order offences in scope of this Bill will have a disproportionate impact on people on the grounds of race if the use of these powers is fair and based on evidence and intelligence and not based on the protected characteristics of those attending a particular protest.”


Apparently racial profiling will not occur as “Nobody should be stopped and searched because of their race or ethnicity and safeguards exist to ensure that this does not happen, including PACE codes of practice, use of body worn video and extensive data collection.”


What now?

The Public Order Bill will see its Second Reading in the Lords today which will be the first time Lords are able to debate the substance of the bill. We urge Peers to oppose the bill and decline to give it a second reading. It is vital that Peers stand firm in this concerted attack on the ability for citizen to assemble and protest.


Conclusion

Voice4Change England is deeply concerned with the chilling effect this will have on the role that civil society can play in a vibrant and robust liberal democracy.


It is also fears that this legislation will, without question, deter and criminalise Black and Minoritised communities to participate in the freedom of assembly. Latest stats show Black people are 7 times more likely to be stopped and searched than white people - expanding these powers will further entrench discrimination in the criminal justice system.


At a time, we should be empowering Black and Minoritised communities to use their voice to oppose legislation they see fit, the government is selecting to insert more barriers and obstacles for those fighting to ameliorate racial inequalities.

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