Legislative Scrutiny: Public Order Bill – Report Summary

This is a House of Commons Committee report, with recommendations to government. The Government has two months to respond.

Author: Joint Committee on Human Rights

Date Published: 17 June 2022

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Summary

The Public Order Bill contains further significant changes to the law on public order in England and Wales, following those introduced in the Police Crime Sentencing and Courts Act 2022. While the stated intention behind the Bill is to strengthen police powers to tackle dangerous and highly disruptive protest tactics, its measures go beyond this, to the extent that we believe they pose an unacceptable threat to the fundamental right to engage in peaceful protest.

The right to peaceful protest is a cornerstone of democracy, which should be championed and protected rather than stifled. It is protected in law by the Human Rights Act 1998, as an aspect of the rights to freedom of expression and freedom of assembly, guaranteed by Articles 10 and 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). While restrictions on protest may be justified in the interests of preventing disorder and protecting the rights of others, a degree of tolerance towards disruption is necessary.

The Bill proposes a number of new offences: locking on and being equipped to lock on (i.e. the protest tactic of attaching oneself to something to prevent your removal); obstructing major transport works; and interfering with key national infrastructure. Each of these offences has a very wide scope, and risks criminalising individuals legitimately exercising their Article 10 and 11 rights. They also unnecessarily place the burden of proving that actions were reasonable on to the defendant, which appears inconsistent with the presumption of innocence and the right to a fair trial guaranteed by Article 6 ECHR. These offences all need amendment to ensure they are not incompatible with Convention rights.

The Bill would also significantly increase police powers to stop and search for articles connected with protest related offences. Stop and search can be an intrusive and intimidating experience, which engages the right to respect for private life under Article 8 ECHR as well as, in the context of protest, Articles 10 and 11 ECHR. There is a risk of stop and search powers being misused, including in a discriminatory manner that infringes Article 14 ECHR, and having a chilling effect on the right to protest. This risk is substantially higher in relation to powers to stop and search without the need for reasonable suspicion, which have previously been considered necessary only to protect against serious violence and terrorism. Stop and search without reasonable suspicion should be removed from the Bill.

The proposed Serious Disruption Prevention Orders, which place conditions on individuals to prevent them engaging in disruptive protest, could impose long-lasting, wide-ranging and onerous restrictions and requirements on individuals, significantly interfering with their right to respect for their private lives and their right to engage in peaceful protest. These measures could be imposed on the basis of relatively minor offending connected with protest - or even without the individual having committed any offence at all. They represent a disproportionate response to the problem of disruptive protest and should be removed from the Bill.