Public Order Bill: police could get new powers to shut down disruptive protests under government plans

Police may soon be able to shut down protests before they escalate

Police could be given powers to shut down protests before they become highly disruptive under new government plans.

A Public Order Bill amendment is due to be introduced on Monday (16 January) which aims to give police greater clarity and flexibility about when they can intervene to stop demonstrators blocking roads or slow marching.

The Bill, which covers England and Wales, is targeted at curbing the guerrilla tactics used by groups like Insulate Britain and Extinction Rebellion. It means that police would not need to wait for disruption to take place and could shut demonstrations down before they escalate.

The proposals, backed by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, come after police chiefs claimed there is some uncertainty over what can be currently classed as “serious disruption” under existing law.

Police may soon be able to shut down protests before they escalate (Photo: Getty Images)Police may soon be able to shut down protests before they escalate (Photo: Getty Images)
Police may soon be able to shut down protests before they escalate (Photo: Getty Images)

The Public Order Bill is considered a successor to the controversial Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act which was passed last year - criticised for introducing curbs on the right to protest. It is currently undergoing line-by-line scrutiny in the House of Lords, which will be tasked with debating the amendment.

Human rights group Liberty said the plan amounted to an attack on the right to protest. Director Martha Spurrier said: “These new proposals should be seen for what they are: a desperate attempt to shut down any route for ordinary people to make their voices heard.

“Allowing the police to shut down protests before any disruption has taken place simply on the off-chance that it might sets a dangerous precedent, not to mention making the job of officers policing protests much more complex.”

No 10 said police would not need to treat a series of protests by the same group as standalone incidents as officers would be able to take into consideration long-running campaigns designed to cause repeat disruption over days or weeks.

‘A balance must be struck’ 

Giving his support to the measures, Sunak said: “The right to protest is a fundamental principle of our democracy, but this is not absolute. A balance must be struck between the rights of individuals and the rights of the hard-working majority to go about their day-to-day business.”

The Prime Minister added: “We cannot have protests conducted by a small minority disrupting the lives of the ordinary public. It’s not acceptable and we’re going to bring it to an end. The police asked us for more clarity to crack down on these guerrilla tactics, and we have listened.”

Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Mark Rowley also gave his backing to the proposals, which would broaden the legal definition of serious disruption. He said: “It is clearly understood that everybody has the right to protest.

“Increasingly, however, police are getting drawn into complex legal arguments about the balance between that right to protest and the rights of others to go about their daily lives free from serious disruption. The lack of clarity in the legislation and the increasing complexity of the case law is making this more difficult and more contested.”

Sir Mark added: “It is for Parliament to decide the law, and, along with other police chiefs, I made the case for a clearer legal framework in relation to protest, obstruction and public nuisance laws.

“We have not sought any new powers to curtail or constrain protest, but have asked for legal clarity about where the balance of rights should be struck. In practical terms, Parliament providing such clarity will create a clearer line for the police to enforce when protests impact upon others who simply wish to go about their lawful business.”

MPs previously backed a cross-party amendment to the Bill aimed at setting up buffer zones around abortion clinics, in a bid to offer greater protection to women by preventing protesters from gathering.

Labour’s shadow policing minister Sarah Jones said: “The police have powers to deal with dangerous, disruptive protests and Labour backs them to use those powers. But the Prime Minister has spent more time talking about protest than he has the epidemic of violence against women and girls or his Government’s shameful record prosecuting criminals.

“If he’s going to do the Home Secretary’s job for her, the victims being let down by his government would appreciate the same attention being given to them.”