Lords battle to defeat Government a second time over the right to protest

As the House of Lords sits to amend the Public Order Bill for the second time, Green peer Jenny Jones writes about the proposed amendments and the draconian laws they’re trying to prevent.

Police at XR protest
Jenny Jones

On Wednesday (16 November), the House of Lords started going through over 150 amendments to the Public Order Bill. The Government is trying to push through legislation which was largely rejected from the Policing Bill. I would dearly love to chuck the whole lot out, but I doubt that we will be able to do that this time. So instead we have to rely upon amendments that take off the most draconian edges, but this list does give you a sense of how our Government is going well beyond the repressive laws of places like Russia.

I’m supporting an amendment to ensure that journalists doing their job are immune from these protest and conspiracy laws. Giving journalists this kind of protection has never been considered necessary until recently, but that is the kind of country we have become.

Most non-violent direct action involves people taking responsibility for their actions and risking criminal sanctions. Historically, this is often defended in court on the grounds of the greater good, i.e. we see something horrible happening and act to stop it, or to draw attention to the inaction. One of my amendments adds this public interest defence to the offence of ‘locking on’ (glueing or otherwise attaching yourself to public property in the name of disruption), while another requires the police to show that an individual or collective protest action actually caused ‘serious disruption’.

A probing amendment would create a specific defence where the person was trying to prevent greater disruption, i.e. the kind of disruption caused by the fossil fuel industry.

If the Government wants offences that are broadly drawn then we need equally broad defences to protect innocent people from being criminalised. Otherwise, we will get arbitrary injustice.

The previous Police Bill widened the definition of serious disruption to almost anything the police don’t like, so it included being noisy, two or more people finding you a nuisance and even, the ‘risk’ that you might be noisy. One of my amendments narrows the definition right down to specific services that were actually disrupted and asks if you definitely disrupted the ‘life of the community’ rather than risked annoying a couple of people.

There is a list of prohibited items (eg. superglue, etc) that might be used to ‘lock on’ and if you wandered out of the shops after buying them and into the midst of a demonstration, it might get you a jail term. An amendment adds the requirement that the police must prove intent and ask whether you have a reasonable excuse for carrying that item (e.g. broken handle of your favourite co-co mug). At present, anything that may be used for locking on, is enough to prove guilt.

I also have an amendment to test whether ‘holding hands’ is a way of ‘locking on’, as the current definition might include touching or sitting down and hugging each other.

Another set of amendments reduces the punishment from imprisonment to a fine, as it is ridiculous that we are even thinking of sending otherwise law-abiding people to overcrowded prisons. The criminal courts in this country are falling apart. Victims of very serious crimes are waiting years for trials because of the backlog caused by 12 years of government mismanagement. The Government now insists on further clogging up the courts with ridiculous cases under such vaguely drafted legislation that just about anyone could fall foul of it on a daily basis. 

The reason the Government is spending more time on legislation to lock up climate protestors than they do on actually solving the climate emergency is not just because they are in the pockets of the oil and gas industry. It is because a second round of austerity, combined with huge inequality and a cost of living crisis is going to bring people onto the streets. This legislation is as much about future protests as it is about the climate protestors like Insulate Britain who tried to warn about an emerging energy and ecological crisis.