The controversial Public Order Bill which would include powers to impose protest banning orders has faced criticism in the House of Lords and likened to repressive laws imposed by Belarus’s authoritarian regime.
The bill has been called “draconian” and “chilling” by human rights groups. It passed a vote at Westminster during its third reading in the House of Commons by 276 votes to 231.
It is now going through the House of Lords. On Tuesday it had its second reading there, and was the first time it was debated there - where it faced strong opposition.
The legislation is aimed at tackling the tactics of climate activists, who have been engaged in a campaign of direct action including defacing famous artworks, spraying orange paint on buildings and blocking roads to the growing frustration of motorists.
But what new powers would the bill bring in, is it really as bad as Belarus and Russia, and what stage in Parliament is it at? Here’s what you need to know.
What is the Public Order Bill?
The bill was introduced in May this year with the aim of bringing in new offences relating to public order. It would see an extension of police powers such as stop and search as well as bringing in measures to crackdown on protestors.
The Home Office says the purpose of the bill is to: “give police the tools they need to tackle dangerous and highly disruptive tactics, used by a small minority of protestors.”
Former Home Secretary Suella Braverman said when the bill was being discussed in the Commons recently: “It’s the Guardian-reading, tofu-eating wokerati, dare I say, the anti-growth coalition that we have to thank for the disruption that we are seeing on our roads today.”
What are the powers the bill would bring in?
Groups such as Insulate Britain and Just Stop Oil have used lock-on methods to cause disruption. Under the bill that is something which would be an offence - it would make the following against the law:
- Locking on, or going equipped to lock on - which is a method of protest where people attach themselves to buildings or objects
- Obstructing major transport works, for example the HS2
- Interfering with national infrastructure such as railways, airports and oil and gas, printing presses
Penalties for falling foul of the offences would be a maximum penalty of six months’ imprisonment, an unlimited fine or both for locking on and obstructing transport works. While interfering with national infrastructure would carry a penalty of up to 12 months’ imprisonment, an unlimited fine, or both.
The bill is also proposing to extend the use of stop and search powers by police to allow officers to search for items which might be used in “protest-related offences”.
It would also introduce Serious Disruption Prevention Orders - a form of injunction, to be sought in the “public interest” where protests are causing or threatening “serious disruption or a serious adverse impact on public safety”.
They would be imposed on those convicted on two prior occasions of protest related crimes, or if on two prior occasions they have caused “serious disruption”, without conviction.
The orders would give courts the ability to impose conditions such as stopping the person from being in a particular place with certain people or using the internet to encourage others to carry out “protest-related offences”.
It could also see anyone subject to such orders having to wear an electronic tag. Breaching SDPOs would carry a penalty of six months in jail or an unlimited fine - or both.
As well as having conditions imposed on them, those subject to the orders would also have notification requirements which would mean having to having to keep in touch with the person or body supervising the order, as well as having to notify if they change their home address.
What happened during the debate in the House of Lords?
Labour former minister Lord Foulkes of Cumnock drew parallels between provisions in the bill and a clampdown against dissent in Belarus by the country’s president Alexander Lukashenko.
He said: “I am alarmed to note that many of the proposals in this bill closely mirror protest laws which are currently enforced by the Lukashenko regime in Belarus.
“We should be very wary of adopting these policies of repression. Belarus’s democracy index is the lowest in Europe. Do we want to sink that low?”
Green Party peer Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb labelled eco-protesters “polite dissenters” compared to the chaos that will ensue if climate change is not tackled – and slammed the Bill’s “repressive powers”.
Former chief Brexit negotiator and minister Lord Frost also expressed concerns about some measures contained in the Bill, including so-called protest banning orders, which would prevent individuals, even those who have committed no offence, from taking part in demonstrations.
The Tory peer said: “I do think it is fundamentally unacceptable in a free society to restrict individuals’ free movement, right to protest or free speech without that individual having been convicted of an offence in a court of law.”
But former Metropolitan Police chief Lord Hogan-Howe insisted ministers have to take action against disruptive protests.
The independent crossbencher said: “When ambulances are being stopped from their work, when airports are unable to function and national infrastructure threatened, the government has no choice.
“It is a fundamental duty to keep the public safe and we should support it in that duty, while I believe being careful not to leave a legislative legacy that could be abused by an authoritarian successor.”
What have human rights groups said?
Human rights groups, unions and politicians have all raised concerns over the bill. In particular the planned measures in relation to protest have been criticised by human rights groups. There’s also been concern over the plans to extend stop and search powers.
Among those speaking out against the bill is Liberty which described it as “draconian” and said it would have a “chilling” impact on the right to protest.
Jun Pang, Policy and Campaigns Officer at Liberty said:“Protest is a fundamental right, not a gift from the State. But this right continues to be attacked by a Government intent on making it harder for all of us to stand up for what they believe in. With the ink on the Policing Act not yet dry, the Government is continuing to impose further draconian measures to restrict our ability to protest.“
“Protest-banning orders will drastically expand the surveillance and punishment of protesters, even those who’ve never been convicted of a crime. We’re also deeply worried about the impacts of the new stop and search powers, and creation of new offences which will further entrench discrimination and make it unsafe for people from marginalised communities to stand up for their rights
“The Public Order Bill will have a chilling effect on the right to protest, criminalising anyone attempting to make themselves heard. In a functioning democracy, everyone must be able to stand up to power. We must fight to defend our right to protest.”
Meanwhile, Amnesty has also spoken out against it and had urged MPs to oppose it. In a briefing it said the prevention orders would “go even further” in terms of prohibiting the organisation and participation of protest than Russia’s Law on Assemblies and measures taken in Belarus.
The briefing paper also said: “Amnesty’s assessment is that the PB Bill would leave the UK in breach of international human rights law.”
It also raised concerns over other parts of the bill including the extension of stop and search powers saying it would“likely lead to discriminatory policing of already over-policed and marginalised groups”.
What are the measures in Russia and Belarus?
In Russia if an assembly involves more than one participant then they have to notify the authorities. It can be prohibited by the authorities if it is due to take place beside viaducts, railways, pipelines, high voltage electric power lines, prisons, courts, presidential residences or in the border control zone. The right to gather can also be restricted in close proximity of cultural and historical monuments.
In 2012 legislation was brought in that raised the fine for holding unsactioned demonstrations and banned protesters from wearing masks and carrying weapons. In addition rallies can’t be organised by anyone who of a breach of public peace and security or have been subject to administrative penalties for rally violations twice or more times within a year.
Two years later the law changed again meaning that holding a demonstration without the permission of authorities, even a peaceful single-person picket, is punishable by a fine or detention of up to 15 days, or up to five years in prison if it is the third breach.
Belarus has tough anti-protest laws. Last year the country passed a new law meaning anyone who has been detained at least twice for taking part in a “unauthorised”protest, or insulted a government official, faces up to three years in prison, whereas previously they were subjected to detentions or fines.
It came after widespread mass demonstrations after the re-election of President Alexander Lukashenko in 2020. In a bid to crackdown on the protests security forces detained thousands of people.
What stage is the Public Order Bill at in parliament?
The bill passed its third reading in the House of Commons on 18 October. However, it has to pass through the House of Lords before it becomes law.
Its first reading at the House of Lords was the following day, while its second reading was on 1 November. It will now go to the committee stage, however a date for that has not been announced.