Public Interest Law Centre founder, Paul Heron, on how the government is using the Coronation as a smoke screen to clamp down on all aspects of protest

On the 3rd May 2023 the Conservative Government rushed through Parliament further restrictive legislation to counter the democratic right to protest. The Public Order Act 2023 will introduce yet more oppressive powers to restrict people’s fundamental rights to peaceful protest. It comprises of a shopping list for an authoritarian government.

More New Laws to Stop Protest

The latest set of laws come soon after, and on top of, the protest restrictions outlined in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022. These restrictions granted broad and unclear powers to both law enforcement and the Government, allowing them to suppress protests, even those carried out by a single individual.

The planned protests against the Coronation are the excuse that has driven this latest legislative drive from the Government but make no mistake this latest batch of draconian laws will be used forcefully against anti-war campaigners, and trade unionists.

The further laws outlined in the Public Order Act 2023 will see further restrictions to our rights by:

  • Setting a very low threshold to define disruptive protesting
  • Giving police significant new powers to prevent protests occurring outside of major transport networks, oil and gas and energy supplies. This offence will attract a maximum penalty of 12 months’ imprisonment, an unlimited fine, or both.
  • Introducing a new offence of obstructing major transport works – this offence will attract a maximum penalty of six months imprisonment, an unlimited fine or both.
  • Making ‘locking on’ or going equipped to ‘lock-on’ a new criminal offence
  • Extending the use of stop and search powers – including suspicion-less stop and search – to protests
  • Introducing of new protest banning orders – the Serious Disruptive Prevention Order – that would prevent individuals from attending protests at all.
  • Enabling the Secretary of State to bring civil proceedings in relation to protest activity where protest action is causing, or is likely to cause, serious disruption to key national infrastructure or access to essential goods or services in England and Wales.

In December 2022 five UN Special Rapporteurs writing to the UK Government expressed their concerns. They stated that the Bill “…could result in undue and grave restrictions on the exercise of the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association and expression.” They called for the Bill to be seriously amended.

An Attack on Civil Liberties and the Right to Protest

Whilst the Government managed to force through the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022, due to a national movement against it, the House of Lords stripped some of the worst anti-protest proposals out of the Policing Act before it became law. There is no doubt that the Government is now resuscitating its rejected plans with the Public Order Bill.

The further extension of policing powers is deeply authoritarian. An expansion of stop and search powers relating to protests and protest banning orders place the UK Government in breach of its international law obligations.

The Impact on Campaigners and Marginalised Groups

It is not possible here to cover the full and potential impact of the Public Order Bill. There is no doubt it will be wide ranging. Using the Coronation as a smoke screen, the legislation will impact all aspects of protest and campaigning.

For example, the new offence of “interfering with key national infrastructure” will fundamentally make unlawful organising a protest at sites of power and acting to ‘obstruct’ transport works. It describes unlawful “…any behaviour.” Is this aimed at trade unionists and the right to strike? It cannot be ruled out.

Measures in the Public Order bill include the expanding stop and search powers which will increase racial discrimination. It is already misused against black people who are seven times more likely to be stopped than white people. The proposals will allow police to stop and search people and vehicles for, and then confiscate any items. Effectively any protest related item.

The Public Order Act Strikes at the Heart of Protest

Protest is a fundamental aspect of democracy and has played an important role in shaping political and social change in the United Kingdom. Throughout history, people in the UK have used peaceful protest as a means of expressing their views. We protest to challenge authority and demand change – from the suffragette movement, which fought for women’s right to vote, and the civil rights movement, which campaigned for racial equality and an end to discrimination to the poll tax campaigners to the mass demonstration against the war in Iraq – protest brings about change.

The Public Order Act strikes at the heart of protest. The proposals – as outlined above – seek to criminalise anyone who takes to the streets for a cause they believe in. It’s another part of the Government’s plan to hide from accountability for its actions and make itself untouchable.

Paul Heron is the senior solicitor and founder of the Public Interest Law Centre. He represents the Stop the War Coalition at the Undercover Policing Inquiry.

04 May 2023 by Paul Heron

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