Government plans to introduce new powers to crack down on protests have cleared the first hurdle in the Commons — despite warnings an “all-out assault” the right to demonstrate from civil liberties groups.
Following two days of debates on the contentious proposals, MPs voted by 359 to 263 to pass the police, crime, sentencing and courts bill at second reading.
The legislation, running at almost 300 pages, contains a huge range of new laws, including tougher penalties for knife carriers and killer drivers, but proposals for protests have sparked particular alarm.
The draft section on “public order” states that conditions can be imposed on demonstrations if the noise generated “may result in serious disruption to the activities of an organisation” or may “have a relevant impact on persons in the vicinity of the protest”.
It creates a new public nuisance law that would make causing “serious annoyance or inconvenience” a crime punishable by up to 10 years’ imprisonment
And it would give Priti Patel and her successors at the Home Office the authority to define “serious disruption to the lift of the community” and “serious disruption to the activities of an organisation” — a measure criticised by Theresa May.
The former prime minister — also the longest-serving home secretary — warned during the first debates on the bill: “I would urge the government to consider carefully the need to walk the fine line between being popular and populist. Our freedoms depend on it.”
Ministers have argued that “recent change in tactics” used by protestors, such as Extinction Rebellion, including gluing themselves to building and vehicles or obstructing access to Parliament, have highlighted gaps in existing the legislation passed in 1986.
But the measures have been condemned by the civil liberties and human rights groups, including Liberty, who described the bill as a “staggering assault on our right to protest, as well as an attack on other fundamental rights”.
Amnesty International also warned: “Temporary restrictions on our civil liberties during a time of pandemic are one thing — but a law permanently restrictions the right to peaceful protest is totally unacceptable”.