Public Order Bill: Bishop of St Albans highlights concerns of excessive police powers

On 1st November 2022, the House of Lords debated the Public Order Bill in its second reading. The Bishop of St Albans spoke in the debate, highlighting concerns that the bill would grant excessive powers to the police:

The Lord Bishop of St Albans: My Lords, I think many of us in this debate will have a feeling of déjà vu. No matter how many pieces of legislation come through here granting the police additional powers, it seems that they are never enough. It seems we are always one more public order provision away from solving the problem.

Along with other noble Lords, I want to support the police and the rule of law. We are grateful for all the police do; they stand in our place and, very often, have to take very difficult decisions. But we already have the Public Order Act 1986, which grants the police powers to place restrictions on protests and to prohibit those which threaten to cause serious disruption to public order. We already have the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, which introduced the offence of aggravated trespass. We have the offence of obstruction of a highway and the Protection from Harassment Act 1997, which allows for civil injunctions to prevent protesters demonstrating in a way which causes harm or harassment. As recently as last year, remarkably extensive powers, including on noisy and disruptive protests, were granted in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022.

Surely history indicates two things: first, that many protest groups are highly sophisticated and very knowledgeable about their rights and the law around protest, and are better and faster able to adapt than it seems the Home Office is able to legislate; and, secondly, that in attempting to outflank that speed of adaptation, Governments have thrown increasingly and worryingly broadly drawn powers to the police. It is clear, by the very fact that the Government deem this new Bill a necessity, that this is unlikely to succeed. It is hard to see how one more piece of legislation will be any more effective at reducing disruptive protests than the previous many pieces of legislation. It would be very instructive if the Minister could go through those previous powers in some detail to explain to your Lordships’ House how often they are used and what their impact has been.

Certainly, the case for new extensive police powers needs to be carefully constructed given the previous history. It is not a small thing to place such significant powers in the hands of the police. Some of what we are discussing today could see someone who has not been convicted of any protest-related offence—despite all the offences and laws which already exist—nevertheless being subject to electronic monitoring and prevented from attending protests, or even encouraging or enabling protests. What seems to be proposed in these serious disruption prevention orders is an incredible set of restrictions which could be imposed on nothing more than a civil standard of proof. It is our duty to look very closely at each of these proposals as the Bill passes through your Lordships’ House.

I am not here in any way to make the police’s job more difficult. As I have said, I think we all deplore unacceptable demonstrations and the huge amount of money that they have cost the public purse. However, in a democracy—as the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, said—sometimes that is the cost of freedom of speech and expression. It is a huge responsibility to maintain public safety and order and to balance that with the freedoms of expression and association. Not one of us here is under any illusion of the difficulties that we face.

I am sure the Minister will tell us that the powers created here will be rarely used and only in the most limited and exceptional circumstances, but I note what other noble Lords have already said: that many of these powers have not been sought by the police. I am not convinced that a “trust us” approach is sufficiently robust to protect against a possible future Government, or police force, who might on occasion, for other reasons, be tempted to overreach their powers. It is very easy to be complacent over rights and the inherent goodness and propriety of our institutions, and we are fortunate in this country to have been more blessed than almost anywhere else in the world in this regard. But we do not need to look very hard around the world to see rights undermined, slowly at first and then dramatically. Surely it is our responsibility to guard against that possibility. We have concerns about the scope of SDPOs, and I will certainly listen carefully to what others with experience in this area have to say on these provisions.

I briefly mention Clause 9, introduced by amendment NC11 in the other place, on abortion clinic buffer zones. I have serious concerns about this clause as it stands. The term “interferes with” is so broadly defined that it includes seeking to influence, merely expressing an opinion, or attempting

“to inform about abortion services”.

I cannot believe that this is proportionate given the existing powers possessed by the police and local authorities, and I am sure that we on this Bench will wish to look again at this clause.

I will listen with interest to the Minister’s response, but at this stage I express grave reservations on a number of aspects of what is being proposed. I hope that the Minister will provide rather more robust evidence of why the Bill will be effective where all the previous ones have apparently not been.


Extracts from the speeches that followed:

Viscount Hailsham (Con): Our democracy is by no means perfect. Many of its defects were identified by my father when he wrote and spoke about the “elective dictatorship”. Incidentally, he would have been deeply shocked by some of the actions and much of the conduct of Mr Johnson—not something that he would have expected from a Conservative Prime Minister. However, we live in a society in which policies can be changed by elections, by a change of Government, through discussion and by the force of public opinion.

Our task in Parliament is surely to identify the correct balance between the right of individuals to protest and the right of others not to be unreasonably interfered with. Many of the critics of this Bill suggest that the constraints on free speech and the right to protest go too far. Although I think that the under- lying purposes of the Bill are correct and should be supported, I hope, as I have said, that the Government will be sensitive to the detailed criticism of the Bill that has been and will continue to be expressed in this place.

There is always a danger, which I accept, that when seeking to address issues of public order Governments will go too far. Powers once given are hard to withdraw. Such powers will often be abused. I agree with the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans who made precisely that point.

Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle (GP): My noble friend Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb will be leading for the Green group on the Bill. My role here is a supporting one but, since I was listed to speak first, I have to set out a very simple position: protest is not a crime. I note that, as many noble Lords including the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans have said, in effect that is what your Lordships’ House already concluded in its strong and effective action on the then Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill earlier this year. The House then expressed its opinions in the strongest possible terms, yet here we are again.

Baroness Ludford (LD): The Minister said in his opening remarks that serious disruption prevention orders have an appropriately high threshold. Other speakers, such as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans, did not agree that the balance of probabilities was an appropriately high threshold. Some obstructive activity has to be tolerated in a free society. In its report on the Bill, the Joint Committee on Human Rights recalled:

“The European Court of Human Rights has recognised that public demonstrations ‘may cause some disruption to ordinary life’ but that ‘it is important to show a certain degree of tolerance towards peaceful gatherings if the freedom of assembly guaranteed in Article 11 of the Convention is not to be deprived of its substance.”

The Government have provided no compelling justification for the introduction of the new expansive powers in the Bill, criminalising ordinary, peaceful, if disruptive, behaviour. The JCHR also stresses—it has been another theme in this debate—that:

“The UK is rightly proud of its history of respect for political protest and is critical of other nations who fail to show the same degree of respect for the crucial importance played by protest in a democratic society. Introducing our own oppressive measures could damage the UK’s international standing and our credibility when criticising other nations for cracking down on peaceful protest.”

The noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, pithily summed this up as “authoritarian creep” and the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, reminded us that sometimes protest tactics that make us uncomfortable change opinion and get the law changed. I hope the new Government will show concern about their international image and reputation and be persuaded that the Bill is unnecessary and unjustified. As the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans said, we need evidence of how this Bill can succeed when its predecessors have self-evidently failed if the Government want this new Bill.

Lord Sharpe of Epsom (Con): At this point I would like to quote the chief constable for Essex Police, Mr Harrington, who said recently that

“concerns about the climate—however real—cannot justify actions that seriously disrupt and endanger the lives of others”.

I would agree with that, much though I share the concerns of those climate protesters. I think most of the House shares those concerns and the Government, as has been argued on many occasions in this Chamber, are doing a lot of work on the subject.

A number of noble Lords brought up the fact that they believe the Bill to be incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights. We have been clear that we believe the measures in the Bill are compatible with the ECHR in the main, with the exception of Clause 9; namely the rights to freedom of expression, assembly and association. However, these rights are not absolute. They do not extend to wreaking havoc on the lives of others.

Several noble Lords, including the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, the noble Lords, Lord Paddick and Lord McAvoy, and my noble friend Lord Frost have argued that there are existing powers for the police to use and that the Bill is therefore unnecessary. I respectfully say that recent events demonstrate that this is not the case. As helpfully explained by the noble Lord, Lord Hogan-Howe, we have seen instances where the current legal measures are insufficient to prevent serious disruption or to hold disruptive protesters to account, even in cases where disruption has incurred unjustifiable costs of over £10 million.

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