The right to protest is a fundamental cornerstone of any democratic society. Protests can be uncomfortable, particularly for those who disagree with them. However, as the Government notes, “freedom of expression is a unique and precious liberty on which the UK has historically placed great emphasis in our traditions of Parliamentary privilege, freedom of the press and free speech”. Any unease must therefore be tolerated.
On 15 November 2021, the Government introduced over 18 pages of late-stage amendments to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022, for which JUSTICE also prepared briefings. The House of Lords rejected all but one of these amendments, which would have allowed the Government to criminalise a breathtakingly wide range of peaceful behaviour, including that with only the most tangential connection to protests.
These amendments now return in the Public Order Bill, which would enhance an already problematic range of restrictions which can be imposed on individuals who take part in protests to express grievances and raise concerns pursuant to the PCSC Act. The Bill is unlikely to be compliant with the European Convention on Human Rights, in particular Article 10 ECHR (freedom of expression) and Article 11 ECHR (freedom of assembly and association). Measures which allow the State to unduly restrict these rights undoubtedly risk violation, especially where the Convention serves to protect not only popular ideas and opinions but also those which “offend, shock or disturb the State or any sector of the population.” Similarly, the European Court of Human Rights has held that the “freedom to take part in a peaceful assembly… is of such importance that it cannot be restricted in any way, so long as the person concerned does not himself commit any reprehensible act”.
In sum, the Bill would serve to give the police carte blanche to target protesters – similar laws can be found in Russia and Belarus. It is therefore unsurprising that equivalent measures to the Protest Banning Orders were previously roundly rejected by the police, Home Office and Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services on the basis that such measures “would neither be compatible with human rights legislation nor create an effective deterrent.” A senior police officer further commented that such measures would constitute “a massive civil liberty infringement”, and indeed the HMICFRS went onto say:
“however many safeguards might be put in place, a banning order would completely remove an individual’s right to attend a protest. It is difficult to envisage a case where less intrusive measures could not be taken to address the risk that an individual poses, and where a court would therefore accept that it was proportionate to impose a banning order.”
For these reasons, JUSTICE therefore opposes the Bill in its entirety, and we call on Parliamentarians to vote it down.
House of Commons Second Reading 2022
House of Commons Second Reading Briefing – May 2022