'The Home Secretary needs to accept that The Public Order Act was a complete misstep and order a review of the legislation'
Wera Hobhouse is the Liberal Democrats’ Climate Change and Transport Spokesperson and MP for Bath
This Conservative Government’s draconian Public Order Act clearly has limited our fundamental democratic rights to peaceful protest. These measures are a complete overreach of power that has the potential to undermine our civil and democratic liberties. The measures, such as serious disruption prevention orders and new stop-and-search powers for the police, have no place in our society.
The Public Order Act is nothing more than a rehash of what the House of Lords overwhelmingly rejected in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022. It includes serious disruption prevention orders that subject individuals to intense regulations, even if they have not been convicted of a crime. They also include new stop-and-search powers for the police, which we know disproportionately target people of colour.
The primary argument in favour of the act centres around ensuring access for emergency services during traffic-stopping protests. Of course, everyone can agree that ambulances should not be stopped from reaching those in need. But it must be noted that the measures brought forward in the Public Order Act go far beyond preventing these blockages. They are a dangerous overreach by the government.
One of the new powers is focussed on preventing people from “locking on”. This broad, catch-all measure could be used to punish anyone for as little as carrying a bike lock. Former senior police officer and Lib Dem Peer Lord Paddick told Sky News that “there is potentially an endless list of objects that could be made, adapted or intended for use in the course of or in connection with protest offences.”
It appears that sometimes, you do not need to be caught with anything to be wrongly targeted under the measures. We witnessed this at the Coronation. Despite being a passionate supporter of the monarchy and eagerly anticipating the arrival of the King, one individual found themselves in the vicinity of Just Stop Oil protesters before they were wrongfully detained for a gruelling 13 hours. On the other end of the spectrum, multiple republicans were arrested in Soho despite protesting against the Coronation peacefully. Whatever your view on the monarchy, the right to peaceful protest is essential to our country.
These shocking arrests prove just how draconian the act is. The right to peacefully gather and protest was undermined just days after the legislation received Royal Assent. It also puts police officers in a very difficult position, threatening the already-fragile public trust in policing. Considering this threat, it is astonishing that the Government essentially ignored the recommendations of the Casey Report that Stop and Search needed a ‘fundamental reset.’
My Liberal Democrat colleagues and I opposed the act at every stage. Our Chief Whip, former police officer Wendy Chamberlain, tabled amendments at report stage that would have required the Government to assess how police forces would train officers sufficiently to ensure that the legislation could be deployed correctly. In light of the Coronation arrests, the amendment was sorely missing from the act.
Meanwhile, the Liberal Democrats strongly supported amendments to the Bill that would have mitigated the worst of its consequences when it was making its way through Parliament. They included, supporting the removal of suspicionless stop-and-search powers and another to axe Serious Disruption Prevention Orders. All of these were defeated by the Conservatives. One thing is clear: any party that supports this legislation is no defender of civil liberties and should certainly not be running the country.
I have had many constituents come to me with concerns about the act, and though it has already passed it is never too late to push for action. The Home Secretary needs to accept that The Public Order Act was a complete misstep and order a review of the legislation. Anything less would be a total shirking of responsibility. The Conservatives’ new laws are nothing more than an attempt to crack down on our fundamental rights to peaceful assembly and protest, and the Liberal Democrats will continue to resist this deeply illiberal legislation.
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