‘Sneaky, cheating bastards’ – Josiah Mortimer reports on a peer leading the charge against the Government's fresh protest clampdown
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New Government plans to restrict protest – snuck out in defiance of Parliament – could have a chilling effect on free speech in England and Wales, a Green Party peer has warned.
The revelation that the Government is set to redefine what constitutes “serious disruption” from protests was highlighted in a House of Lords scrutiny committee report on 11 May.
It points to new regulations from ministers that would permit police to impose restrictions on demonstrations causing "more than minor" disruption to daily activities, including "going to and fro on the highway".
The new regulations – which cannot be amended by MPs or peers as they are brought in by 'Henry VIII powers' – would also allow the police to consider the cumulative effect of repeated protests when shutting down demonstrations. They could cover any disruption by two or more people.
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The changes come after similar amendments were proposed by the Government in January as part of the Public Order Act – and were rejected by the House of Lords, leading to their removal.
The Government’s controversial approach to these draft rules, which were laid before the Public Order Bill had even completed its parliamentary stages, is now drawing sharp criticism.
Legal experts Tom Hickman KC and Gabriel Tan characterised the Government's manoeuvring as an irresponsible and anti-democratic act of "constitutional chutzpah".
The move also risks triggering a battle with the House of Lords. Among the most vocal critics is the Green Party.
Speaking to Byline Times, Green peer Baroness Jenny Jones said: “They are just sneaky, cheating bastards. That’s my quote.”
The implication of this shift in definition of “serious disruption” is potentially vast, as virtually any action, based on the judgement of individual police officers, could be deemed a violation, thereby having a stifling effect on protests, Baroness Jones says.
She warned the police could halt “literally anything”. “It could be holding a placard, it could be holding a piece of paper. We've already seen these sorts of arrests, but it brings us into line with some very repressive regimes."
And Baroness Jones slammed the Government's use of a statutory instrument to push the proposed changes through, bypassing typical parliamentary procedure.
She also lambasted Labour for its lack of opposition to the changes. Labour will be launching a 'motion of regret' to the amendment, which has no formal power to stop the move, unlike a 'fatal motion' planned by Baroness Jones. It will be voted for or against on 13 June.
“I simply don't understand how they can let some of this stuff go through and still maintain they have any principles," she said, questioning Labour's commitment to democracy.
Baroness Jones also argued that the Government was essentially 'hiding' behind the police, in her eyes falsely claiming that the police were asking for these new powers when in reality “they have not”.
"The Government is kind of using them as a bit of a cover," she added.
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Despite more constraints to protest coming down the line, Baroness Jones held a resilient outlook for the future of demonstrations – pointing to the ingenuity of activists to get around new rules.
"People who protest, seeing wrongdoing by our Government or by organisations, will always find a way to protest," she said. "It doesn't stop protesting, protestors will become even more creative.
"In my view, people who are protesting as part of Just Stop Oil and so on, in the future, they will be seen as heroes. We'll be seen as the idiots who didn't understand what they were saying."
The regulations come as the Government plans to announce a new 'free speech tsar' this week, to fine student unions to reject talks from, for example, people judged to hold transphobic or racist views.
Asked by Byline Times why the Prime Minister appeared to be ignoring Parliament, the PM’s spokesman said: “We wouldn’t characterise it as that. It’s not appropriate that people are prevented from going about their everyday lives by these sorts of actions.
“Obviously the right to protest is fundamental and protected, but when it crosses into stopping people going about their lives, businesses trading or indeed emergency services. going about their work, it's clearly not appropriate.”
The Government insists that police have asked for these powers. Questioned about this, the spokesman said: “You'll know that there have been a number of discussions with police leaders about the powers they need clarity around, and I think this is in response to that.”
There are no plans to withdraw the secondary legislation, he added.
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