On 16th November 2022, the Lord Bishop of Southwell and Nottingham spoke in support of an amendment to the Public Order Bill on behalf of the Bishop of St Albans, who was a signatory to the amendment. The amendment would provide a definition for the phrase “serious disruption” to the “community” used in the bill:
The Lord Bishop of Southwell and Nottingham: My Lords, in the absence of my right reverend friend the Bishop of St Albans, who is a signatory to Amendment 17 but unable to be present in the Chamber this afternoon, I am pleased to speak in its support, as it provides much- needed clarity to the law. I am also very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, for explaining the amendments with such clarity at the beginning of this group.
I will make two main points. First, the Bill, in its present form, fails to provide a definition of what constitutes “serious disruption” to the “community”. I strongly support providing a strict statutory definition of this; it will give clearer guidelines to the police as to what is acceptable, as well as to those wishing to engage in lawful protest, and will provide much-needed democratic oversight to the Bill. Under the current law and the Bill as drafted, there is no clear definition of what disruption to the community means, and it would be subject to the discretion of the police themselves. A lack of clarity is not helpful to either the police or the community. As reported in evidence to the Bill Committee in the other place, many police officers have expressed a desire for clearer statutory guidance, and many are concerned that they will be asked to make decisions on matters which they do not have the confidence to make. If we are to reflect on the consequences of the amendment, we can see that it would mean that protesters would rightly be prevented from disruption to essential services—schools, hospitals or places of worship—but the right to reasonable democratic protest would still be protected.
Secondly, it is important that proposed new paragraph (c) in the amendment upholds the access to “a place of worship” as an essential service. I am very pleased that this amendment would enshrine freedom of religion or belief as a central part of the Bill. As we have been reminded over the pandemic, churches and other religious buildings offer essential services for their local community. Access to these buildings and the pastoral work of the clergy and other faith leaders should not be unreasonably hindered.
Churches are not unfamiliar with protests. Indeed, they have sometimes been a catalyst for good and even forthright protest inspired by principles of faith in the interest of the common good. The example of Jesus is a challenge and, I believe, an inspiration in this regard. Sadly, there have also been times when churches have been the focus of reasonable protest, challenging the Church when it and society have failed to exemplify the values that underpin faith. Either way, many protests over the centuries have happened inside or within the vicinity of our buildings. Churches are public buildings, places of sanctuary and refuge, there to serve all in their community. They are therefore to be considered essential places for people to meet, to worship and to nourish their faith, and for all who are seeking spiritual comfort or hope, often in difficult times. The right to attend a place of worship is therefore a vital human right enshrined in law in our country, and it is important that this law makes that clear. I once again express my wholehearted support for this amendment.
Extracts from the speeches that followed:
Lord Paddick (LD): The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwell and Nottingham made an important point about places of worship. The noble Lord, Lord Hain, made an important point too. I greatly respect the role that he played in overturning apartheid in South Africa, but I am not sure he can say with confidence that what he did amounted to serious disruption when we do not have a definition of serious disruption in the Bill. The noble Baroness, Lady Fox, supported by the Minister, talked about suffragettes and how they were very different from the protesters at this time, but that was not the point I was making. My point was that suffragettes locked on and the Government are saying that this new offence of locking on is a response to new tactics employed by protesters. Well, that is what the suffragettes did. That is the only point I was trying to make.
As for nothing being done, the police have been arresting stop oil protesters even before they have caused serious disruption. They have been arresting them for conspiracy to cause public nuisance. Whether it is for causing public nuisance under the famous Section 78 or highway obstruction, for which they can now be sent to prison, protesters are being remanded in custody by courts which are not confident that they would not go on to repeat the offences for which they have been arrested. Some of them have been sentenced to prison for highway obstruction. So I do not think it is the case that the police are not doing anything, or that existing legislation cannot be used effectively by the police.
The noble Lord, Lord Anderson, supported the idea of tailored definitions, hence his wavering, if I can put it that way, in terms of his own amendment. The noble Lord, Lord Macdonald of River Glaven, reinforced the point about clarity and predictability. People need to know whether they are going to break the law if they do something, which is why we need these definitions.