Andy McDonald – 2022 Speech on the Public Order Bill

The speech made by Andy McDonald, the Labour MP for Middlesbrough, in the House of Commons on 23 May 2022.

It is an absolute pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Salford and Eccles (Rebecca Long Bailey).

The Public Order Bill is the latest in a line of Bills that this Government have decided to introduce, which can only be described as some of the most reactionary and authoritarian legislation in living memory. Instead of bringing forward measures to support people, following a global pandemic that has ripped through our communities, with many now in the dreadful situation of having to choose between heating their homes and eating, and with 40% of households expected to be in fuel poverty, Ministers are using parliamentary time to criminalise our basic right as citizens to protest peacefully—or even noisily and irritatingly.

The Bill follows a raft of recent laws passed at the very end of the last Session that were designed to stifle our liberties. We had the Elections Act 2022, containing measures cynically designed to prevent people from voting. We had the Nationality and Borders Act 2022, which gives the Home Secretary powers to strip dual citizens of their British citizenship without notice, and—in contravention of the UK’s international obligations—criminalises many of those seeking asylum, who now risk being shipped off to Rwanda thanks to her cruel and inhumane scheme. We also had the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022, banning noisy protests and criminalising Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities.

Thanks to the work of those in the other place, the Government’s attempt to pass provisions that, if implemented, would leave the UK in breach of international human rights law was scuppered. It is therefore very concerning that the Government have immediately opted to introduce them again in this Session through this Public Order Bill.

The headline measure banning people from locking on—attaching themselves to other persons or objects—is a dangerous assault on non-violent protest. To begin with, as has been pointed out, the Bill does not even properly define “attach”, so it is unclear what it means. Could linking arms with other protesters count? Could using balloons that need to be tethered to the ground fall under these provisions? On top of that, the Bill does not define what would constitute “reasonable excuse”. Would exercising the fundamental right to protest count?

Would the following example count, which I wish to bring to the Home Secretary’s attention, as set out in an early-day motion from 13 years ago, one of whose main signatories was the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May)? It begins:

“That this House commemorates the 100th anniversary on 27 April 2009 of the day that Margery Humes, Theresa Garnet, Sylvia Russell and Bertha Quinn, suffragettes from the Women’s Social and Political Union, chained themselves to statues in St. Stephen’s Hall to protest for the right of women to vote”,

and

“pays tribute to those and all other heroic women who fought for the rights of women during a time when society, and Parliament, thought them undeserving of equal rights”.

How can the Home Secretary countenance enacting legislation that would undoubtedly make protests such as that, which took place just a stone’s throw away from this Chamber, carry a maximum penalty of six months in prison, an unlimited fine, or both? What is more, the Bill would make it an offence merely to be in possession of equipment to lock on. A person would not have to lock on to commit a crime; just being equipped to lock on would be an offence punishable with an unlimited fine.

The right to protest was fought for by generations. When Parliament is not acting in the interests of the people, whom it purports to represent, the right to protest is paramount to keep this place in check. Were it not for those suffragettes, the securing of women’s rights would have been much delayed, which might have delayed the progress that enabled the Home Secretary or the former Prime Minister to be in this place. I cannot help but see the terrible irony in the Home Secretary’s introducing legislation that would criminalise the very means by which courageous suffragettes won women the right to take part in the political sphere. If it was right for the suffragettes to take that action, as the former Prime Minister advocated, why is it not right for other protesters holding this place to account?

Mr Holden

Legislation passed in 2007 turned trespass in this place into criminal trespass, so what the hon. Gentleman is talking about could not take place because of legislation passed under the last Labour Government. It is already a criminal offence, so the suggestion that the Bill does something different and criminalises something that was not already illegal does not hold water, does it?

Andy McDonald

The hon. Gentleman understates the significance of that process, which fundamentally changed our constitution and which was deemed to be illegal at the time.

What is so different between, on the one hand, the suffragettes, and on the other, protesters such as the esteemed international climate lawyer Farhana Yamin sticking her hands to the pavement outside the London headquarters of Shell to highlight the fact that the Paris agreement, which she helped to negotiate in 2015, was not delivering; or the Palestine solidarity activists locking on to one another outside the London headquarters of Elbit Systems, Israel’s largest arms manufacturer, whose subsidiary IMI Systems may well be responsible for supplying the bullet used to murder Shireen Abu Akleh? Just like the Government in 1909 withholding the right to vote from women, this Government’s failure to tackle the climate change crisis with enough urgency is an outrage that demands outcry. Much has been said of Insulate Britain and the objections to certain of its tactics. Government Members should contemplate why it is necessary for people to take such measures when we see our planet dying. If they want to shut up Insulate Britain, there is something very simple that they could do, and that is to insulate Britain and get on with it. In a healthy democracy, these uproars of objection would not be criminalised, but taken on board by a Government serving in the interests of the people.

The attempt to pass the Bill is a very dark day for democracy, and it is incumbent on us all to oppose it in its entirety. I encourage everyone who can do so to attend the TUC rally in this city, which is titled so aptly: “We demand better”.