Police officers on duty at a protest on Whitehall. Credit: Garry Knight
Police officers on duty at a protest on Whitehall. Credit: Garry Knight

Public Order Bill: New restrictions to protest tempered but will still bite

Measures in the Public Order Bill, which increase police powers to restrict demonstrations and curb protest rights in the UK, were tempered by the House of Lords, but they have not lost their bite.

Mitigating some of the harm

Peers succeeded in removing two new powers: suspicionless stop and search powers and Serious Disruption Prevention Orders (SDPOs) without conviction, which were two of our major concerns. The stop and search powers would have allowed police officers to stop and search someone or a vehicle without suspicion. SDPOs, aka ‘protest banning orders’, would have the potential to ban named individuals from protests without having been convicted. Despite their removal, protest-related stop and search on suspicion and SDPOs on conviction remain in the Bill, more on that shortly.

Peers also succeeded in adding new measures to the Bill to introduce greater protections for journalists and other observers of protest – an issue that rose to prominence following the arrest of LBC journalist Charlotte Lynch at the Just Stop Oil protest in November.

They also prevented the government from introducing new police powers to shut down protests before they began, removing the ‘reasonable excuse’ defence from several offences and setting an extremely low threshold for ‘serious disruption’ as ‘more than minor’. Pressure also resulted in the government offering concessions such as removing GPS tagging for SDPOs.

Missed opportunity

Despite these important wins, the Bill as a whole remains extremely problematic. The most disheartening aspect of this is that despite having the numbers on their side, Peers failed to push key amendments to the Bill which would have removed SDPOs on conviction, protest-related stop and search powers with suspicion, and new locking on offences entirely from the Bill.

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For example, the new stop and search powers that remain in the Bill expand the types of offences that allow a police officer to stop and search a person or vehicle, if they suspect they will find an article “made, adapted or intended for use in the course of or in connection with” ‘protest-related’ offences. In not putting the amendment to a vote Lord Paddick (Lib Dems) said he “should not waste noble Lords’ time dividing the House on an amendment that Labour will not support, and a vote that we therefore cannot win, however passionately I and other noble Lords feel..”

International concern with the Bill and the UK’s reputation

A significant amount of alarm has been expressed about the Bill internationally, including five UN Special Rapporteurs who raised grave concerns that the Bill would seriously curtail human rights, and the Commissioner for Human Rights of the Council of Europe.

A group of Hongkongers in Britain likened the measures to those used against democracy protests in Hong Kong in a public letter, while Amnesty International made similar comparisons to repressive policies in Russia and Belarus. This comes at a time protest rights continue to be restricted globally, and the detention of protesters remains the number one violation of civic freedoms tracked by CIVICUS.

At the same time, the Index on Censorship ranked the UK as only ‘partly open’; Human Rights Watch warned that the UK was in danger of being added to its global list of human rights abusers; and the UK’s score dropped significantly in Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index.

As our CEO, Stephanie Draper said in a public statement after the vote:

At a time when the right to protest is under attack around the world, the government should be setting a positive example to countries that have clamped down on civic space. Instead, the UK is mirroring this trend and is becoming increasingly authoritarian by making it harder for people to protest. How can the UK call other world leaders out for undermining democracy if we are doing the same thing here?

What happens next and what can you do about it?

The Bill now returns to the Commons and the measures the Peers succeeded in removing from the Bill could be added back in. The coming weeks will be a crucial time to influence MPs to ensure these are not amended and reintroduced in the Commons by the government. Now is not the time to give up.

You can help by:

  • Lobbying MPs to support the changes made by Lords
  • Encourage your supporters to write to their MPs
  • Speak out about the importance of protest and raise awareness of the impact the Bill will have on people and communities playing an active role in social change.