Action against hunger protesting in parliamentary square
Action against hunger protesting in parliamentary square

Further curbs to protest rights in the UK are on their way

After all the recent political upheaval you may have missed that the Public Order Bill is back, which places yet more restrictions on protest rights in the UK. So, what is changing and what can you do about it?

Just weeks ago, Bond members were demonstrating in Parliament square. A range of organisations, including Care International, Concern, Action Against Hunger, Oxfam and Save the Children brought together supporters in a demonstration calling for the government to act in response to the famine in East Africa.

I’ve written before about why protest matters for INGOs and this is an important example. Protest is a fundamental right – and empowers everyone, and anyone, to stand up to injustice, advocate for change and play an active role in politics. It is a vital way to raise the profile of an issue, with both the public and politicians, it can influence decision makers and is a core part of campaigning.

But the UK government is systematically eroding protest rights.

Public Order Bill

Last year, Bond and its allies in the Police Bill Alliance campaigned against the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act. We successfully persuaded the House of Lords to remove some of the most draconian measures eroding protest rights including:

  • Serious Disruption Prevention Orders aka ‘protest banning orders’. This disproportionate measure can be issued even if you have not committed an offence, and set a range of conditions, requirements and prohibitions on what you can and cannot do.
  • Protest-related stop and search powers. This drastically expands powers including suspicionless stop and search – which is disproportionately used against Black people – and allows police to stop and search people and their vehicles, and confiscate items that they believe might be used to commit a protest offence such as glue, bike locks or placards.
  • Offence of ‘locking-on’. Locking on is essentially attaching yourself, another person or an object to anything else. This could mean anything from gluing yourself to the street to linking arms.

Because they failed to pass these measures via the PCSC Act, the government revived all of them in the Public Order Bill. But they did not stop there. The Public Order Bill now includes additional measures such as GPS tracking for protesters subject to ‘protest banning orders’ and sweeping powers to impose precautionary injunctions that could prevent people from holding a protest. Amnesty International has highlighted that the policies in the Public Order Bill are similar to repressive policies used in Russia and Belarus.

What’s happening with the Bill?

The Public Order Bill is going through second reading in the House of Lords today, having passed through the Commons shortly before the home secretary, Suella Braverman, resigned. Despite the change in prime minister and new Cabinet, we do not anticipate this will slow the passage of the Bill or result in it being shelved.

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While it was in the Commons, MPs across the House of Commons spoke out against measures curbing protests. An amendment on protest banning orders did make it to a vote and while it did not pass, we were pleased to see several Conservatives rebel to vote in favour. This gives us quite a bit of leverage to advocate for the Lords to make amendments.

Looking ahead, we anticipate the Bill will move quickly with Committee stage probably commencing by mid-November and the Bill may be back in the Commons before the Christmas recess.

How you can help

While we are still calling for the Bill to be scrapped, an informal coalition of civil society organisations, including Bond, are also working to mitigate the worst excesses of the Bill through proposing amendments. You can help us by:

  • Circulating the new parliamentary briefing drafted by civil society partners for peers with your contacts in the House of Lords, to help us make the case against the proposed changes and build a strong network of allies, to help us build a strong network of allies.
  • Help raise awareness of the #PublicOrderBill by sharing why protest matters to your organisation.
  • Write a blog for your supporters and help build awareness of the Bill and why organisations across the sector are taking a stand.

If you’d like to get more involved, please contact Rosemary.