Whilst the Public Order Bill was going through the Commons Last October I received a large correspondence against its provisions from constituents who believed that it reduced the opportunities for lawful protest.
I do have reservations about the extent of discretion being given to senior police in some circumstances, but I believed that the right to protest was safe, that is until it was compromised by an amendment, which the Government opposed, but was carried.
There is always a balance to be had between protest and the potential for disorder. What if the right of protestors to demonstrate prevents others from going about their lawful business?
We’ve all seen how groups like Extinction Rebellion and Just Stop Oil have made life a misery for people trying to get to work or preventing from dealing with important family commitments. Ordinary people have rights too.
So, I thought it was right to give the Police sufficient new powers to prevent protests from wrecking things for everyone else.
The irony is that during the bill’s passage in the Commons, MPs who were among the most opposed to the balance that it sought to strike in restraining aspects protest, themselves inserted its most illiberal provision: excluding freedom of speech and any demonstration whatsoever within an exclusion zone;
New Clause 11 prevents anyone within 164 yards of an abortion clinic (or any adjoining highway, or area visible from such a highway) from protesting in any way at all, even just being there.
I accept that those seeking the services provided by the clinics have an absolute right to free and unmolested access but these provisions are extreme: you won’t even be allowed just to stand there silently.
Minister’s, who opposed the new clause, accepted that it contravenes our Human Rights laws and that something needed to be done to amend it in the Lords. Unfortunately, The Government has no majority in the Lords and we will just have to wait and see what they send back to the Commons in the next few days. Unamended, it will probably end up in another spat it the Strasbourg Court under the European Convention on Human Rights.
In the meantime, when the bill hasn’t even become law yet, we’ve already had the Police arrest someone for standing silently close to an abortion clinic, even though it was closed at the time so she wasn’t in anyone way.
When she was interrogated about what she was doing, she said that she was praying silently. They then demanded to know what she was praying about!
We really are now in the realms of Orwellian ‘thought Crime’.