Police in England and Wales to get new powers to shut down protests before disruption begins

Plans aimed at preventing tactics such as ‘slow marching’ part of Rishi Sunak’s public order crackdown

Police in England and Wales are to be given powers to shut down protests before any disruption begins under Rishi Sunak’s plans for a public order crackdown, which aim to prevent tactics such as “slow marching”.

Sparking outrage from civil liberties campaigners, the government said it would be laying an amendment to the public order bill to toughen its crackdown on “guerilla” tactics used mainly by environmental protesters.

It is intended to deal with protest groups’ changing tactics, such as slowing traffic to a crawling pace by carrying out walking protests through big cities.

Just Stop Oil protesters have used walking protests to draw attention to the climate emergency after the government introduced laws to stop other forms of pop-up demonstrations.

Sunak said the proposals would be tabled through an amendment to the public order bill, which will be debated in the House of Lords this week. The change would broaden and clarify the legal definition of “serious disruption” and allow police to consider protests by the same group on different days or in different places as part of the same wider action.

No 10 said it would mean that police “will not need to wait for disruption to take place and can shut protests down before chaos erupts”. The amendment will now be debated in the House of Lords, where it is likely to face a battle, and its passage will depend on whether it attracts the support of Labour and crossbenchers.

Civil liberty campaigners and protest groups last night said they fear the government’s overly draconian approach.

Shami Chakrabarti, the Labour peer and former director of Liberty, who is challenging some elements of the bill in the House of Lords, said the government’s attempt to get even more powers was “very troubling”.

“The definition of what counts as serious disruption is key to this bill because it is used as a justification for a whole range of new offences, stop and search powers and banning orders. If you set the bar too low, you are really giving the police a blank cheque to shut down dissent before it has even happened,” she said.

Patsy Stevenson, who was arrested at the vigil on Clapham Common for murdered Londoner Sarah Everard, said the bill was “outrageous”.

She added: “I think this bill is going to cause so much damage. This bill is basically like the government saying: ‘We will do whatever we want, regardless of how the public feel about it,’ because once you ban protesting, that bans free speech completely.”

Martha Spurrier, the director of Liberty, said the new proposals are “an attack on our rights” that “must be resisted”. She added they “should be seen for what they are: a desperate attempt to shut down any route for ordinary people to make their voices heard”.

She said: “Allowing the police to shut down protests before any disruption has taken place, simply on the off-chance that it might, sets a dangerous precedent, not to mention making the job of officers policing protests much more complex.”

Leading protest groups said the new laws would not deter them. A Just Stop Oil spokesperson said: “Just Stop Oil supporters will continue; stopping, quitting is not an option. It doesn’t matter what government does.

“They can arrest, fine or incarcerate ordinary people for walking down the road or they can take meaningful steps to protect the people of this country and start by ending new oil and gas, insulate peoples homes and defend the NHS.”

Sarah Jones, Labour’s shadow minister for policing, suggested the party thinks the police already have the necessary tools to deal with disruptive protest.

“Police have powers to deal with dangerous, disruptive protests and Labour backs them to use those powers,” she said.

Alistair Carmichael, the Lib Dem homes affairs spokesperson, described the move as “shameless” and “part of the Conservative government’s anti-democratic attempts to silence any opposition to its policies”.

Last year, the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act placed onerous new restrictions on protest – granting, among other measures, the ability for the police to ban demonstrations that they believe will be too noisy.

The public order bill, for England and Wales, goes even further in creating new offences of “locking on”, where protesters attach themselves to things in order to cause disruption. It will also bring in new serious disruption prevention orders to place restrictions on individual activists and new stop and search powers for protest.

Announcing the plans to crack down even further, Sunak said: “The right to protest is a fundamental principle of our democracy, but this is not absolute. A balance must be struck between the rights of individuals and the rights of the hard-working majority to go about their day-to-day business.

“We cannot have protests conducted by a small minority disrupting the lives of the ordinary public. It’s not acceptable and we’re going to bring it to an end.

“The police asked us for more clarity to crack down on these guerrilla tactics, and we have listened.”

He was backed by Sir Mark Rowley, the commissioner of the Metropolitan police, who added: “Increasingly, police are getting drawn into complex legal arguments about the balance between that right to protest and the rights of others to go about their daily lives free from serious disruption.

“The lack of clarity in the legislation and the increasing complexity of the case law is making this more difficult and more contested.

“It is for parliament to decide the law, and along with other police chiefs, I made the case for a clearer legal framework in relation to protest, obstruction and public nuisance laws. We have not sought any new powers to curtail or constrain protest, but have asked for legal clarity about where the balance of rights should be struck.”

But Anna Birley, co-founder of Reclaim These Streets, said: “Handing new powers over to the police to decide who’s allowed to protest is incredibly dangerous – the high court case we won against the Met showed just how ill-equipped they are to make those judgments.

“We cannot claim to live in a healthy democracy if our government is curbing our fundamental human rights and if new powers to crack down on dissent are being handed over to police forces grappling with institutional racism, misogyny and homophobia.”

• The headline of this article was amended on 16 January 2023 to remove a reference to “UK” police; the bill covers England and Wales. This information has also been added to the text.


Rowena Mason, Aamna Mohdin and Emine Sinmaz

The GuardianTramp

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