Anne McLaughlin – 2022 Speech on the Public Order Bill

The speech made by Anne McLaughlin, the SNP MP for Glasgow North East, in the House of Commons on 23 May 2022.

“A little inconvenience is more acceptable than a police state”—not my words, but those of a police officer consulted by Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary and fire and rescue services on proposals in the Bill. I agree with the sentiment.

People are fleeing war in Ukraine and multiple other countries. The Home Secretary could be focused on sorting out the dangerously long time it is taking to get them to safety. She could be putting her energy into fixing the chaos at the Passport Office. She could be using her power to solve the supply chain issues that are pushing up food prices, which have made things unaffordable for many on these islands. Instead, she is bringing back populist—according to YouGov and Daily Express polls, at least—draconian, anti-human rights policies that were rejected only a matter of weeks ago in the other place. The reason for that is anyone’s guess. Is it to distract from the aforementioned failings of her Department? To raise her profile for when the Prime Minister surely, inevitably, has to stand down? Or just because she can?

Make no mistake: this, to quote Liberty, is

“a staggering escalation of the Government’s clampdown on dissent”.

It is at odds with people’s right to freedom of thought, belief and religion; freedom of expression; and freedom of assembly and association. For some, it will also lead to a clampdown on their right to respect for private and family life. Those are all rights we enjoy through the Human Rights Act 1998, but I do not expect this Government or many of their Back Benchers to care, because they want to tear that Act up and define the rights that they think we should enjoy.

However, I think that the people out there, who after all elected us, have the right to know that this Government want to control what they think, believe and say. This Bill allows the state to stop and search people who are not suspected of a single wrongdoing. It could lead to someone who has committed no crime having to report to certain places at certain times. I would be interested to hear who they will report to in Scotland, and what consultation has taken place with the Scottish Government on that. The Bill could mean people out there, again having committed no offence, having to wear an electronic tag, and having every single move they make monitored 24/7. That is sinister. The Home Secretary did not like it when the Opposition said this, but it bears striking similarities to what happens in Russia and Belarus. It is all about oppressing and controlling people. It is the stuff of conspiracy theories no more; this is the menacing new reality if you do not agree with the Conservative Government.

Big Brother Watch is concerned that the Bill takes us one step closer to becoming a surveillance state. That may be ideologically in line with this Government’s desire to control the people, but is it necessary? Will it work?

Kit Malthouse

Will the hon. Lady give way?

Anne McLaughlin

No, I am not giving way. There is widespread acceptance that the answer to both of those questions is no. Again,

“a little inconvenience is more acceptable than a police state”.

It is not just the one police officer who felt that way. Her Majesty’s inspectorate consulted widely on these powers as early as 2020 and they were rejected across the board, not just because they were incompatible with human rights legislation, but because police concluded that they would not be an effective deterrent. So what is the point?

Existing legislation is already heavily weighted in favour of the authorities, and the 2022 Act has made that even more the case. The former Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Bromsgrove (Sajid Javid), said in 2018 that,

“it is a long-standing tradition that people are free to gather together and to demonstrate their views. This is something to be rightly proud of.”

He was right: it was something to be rightly proud of. Where a crime is committed, the police already have the powers to act so that people feel protected. Where there is a clear need to protect critical infrastructure or transport hubs, the UK already has an array of legislation that allows that to happen, as the former Home Secretary said. The Public Order Act 1986 gives the police powers to place restrictions on protests and, in some cases, prohibit those that threaten to cause serious disruption to public order. There is an array of criminal offences that could apply to protesters, including aggravated trespass or obstruction of a highway.

Despite that, the Government waited until the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill had completed its passage through this House to slip much of what we have before us today into that Bill at the last minute, when it was in the House of Lords—and the Lords roundly rejected it. Instead of accepting the defeat, one week later, the Government regurgitated most of the measures into the Bill before us today. The Home Secretary should accept that these draconian measures have already been rejected by Parliament and respect the democratic process. After all, this Government keep telling Scotland to do likewise, although the issue we intend to revisit—the matter of Scotland’s independence—was last put before the people eight years ago, not just last month.

Alberto Costa (South Leicestershire) (Con)

We must remember that at the time of the Scottish referendum, the SNP leadership promised that it was a once-in-a-generation referendum. The passage of eight years can hardly be regarded as that, can it?

Anne McLaughlin

What we have here is a once-in-a-fortnight opportunity to bring back legislation that has been rejected in this place. The Government expect us to accept the result of the referendum eight years ago, despite having tested the alternative and despite a series of promises being broken subsequent to Scotland voting no. Why is it acceptable for them to repackage measures a week after they were rejected, even though there has been no time to assess the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022 for effectiveness, human rights compatibility, or the police’s ability to manage those extensive new powers?

On the matter of Scotland, yes, the Bill and its powers apply to events taking place in here in England and in Wales, but as I said repeatedly throughout proceedings on the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, I and every SNP Member will defend the right of the people of Scotland to peacefully protest against decisions made on our behalf by another Government, in another country, who were not elected by the people of Scotland. Crucially, we will defend the right of the people of Scotland to protest where that Government sit—right here, at the seat of power. The people of Scotland have come to London many times in their thousands to protest against the illegal invasion of Iraq, the billions squandered on nuclear weapons stationed without our permission on the west coast of Scotland, and the daylight robbery foisted on the women who, when they reached state pension age, discovered that the age had gone up and they would not be receiving their state pension after all. We can stand in the middle of Glasgow or outside the Scottish Parliament all we like—and we do—but the Scottish Parliament cannot change any of those things, no matter whether they want to or not.

I will defend the right of my constituents to stand outside this place and make their voices heard, and I will defend their right to not be subjected to the outrageous measures proposed here today—measures such as the serious disruption prevention orders, which can be imposed on people whether or not they have committed an offence. It is these orders that allow for reporting and for GPS monitoring. Remember, an individual does not have to have committed an offence to be subject to one of these orders, and anyone who fails to fulfil one of the obligations can be criminalised and subjected to imprisonment for up to 51 weeks. Similar legislation in Belarus allows sentences of up three years, so no doubt the Government will tell us to think ourselves lucky.

There are also the locking-on measures. My constituent Christine lives in Springburn, and she is a campaigner in the Women Against State Pension Inequality Campaign. She never wanted to be any kind of campaigner, but her state pension was taken from her and she felt compelled to act. If she and other WASPI women come to London to protest, or even just to visit London, and she has glue in her bag because she is a crafter but does not use it, can she be charged? Could she go to jail for 51 weeks? Can the Home Secretary guarantee that she would not? No, she cannot. And how would the glue be found in the first place? It would be found because the Bill also has measures such as suspicionless stop and search. Christine, in her mid-60s and a model citizen, could be stopped and searched regardless of suspicion, just because of where she is and where they think she might go and what she might do—but Christine is not the target, is she?

We already know that stop and search has a disproportionate impact on people who are black; they are seven times more likely to be stopped and searched. But when it comes to suspicionless stop and search, they are 14 times more likely to be stopped and searched. Is it a coincidence that all this legislation to stop people protesting came on the back of an uprising of movements like the Black Lives Matter movement? The important thing about Black Lives Matter is that it was not led by well-meaning white allies like me; it was and is led by campaigners who are black—those whose lives are devastated by those who do not believe that their lives matter as much as the lives of white people.

My partner was the founder of Black Lives Matter Scotland. I have been taken aback by the number of people who, over the past couple of years, have approached him and told him that they never spoke of what they experienced as a black person on these islands until Black Lives Matter. Some of them living in remote areas said that, at times, they thought they might be the only black person in Scotland, but suddenly they found a community who got it, and it transformed their lives and the way they thought about themselves. That is why it is so important to encourage movements like that, but that, along with the nerve of environmental campaigners—trying to save the planet, for goodness’ sake; how dare they—is likely one of the reasons why they annoy this Government so much. If not, what is the excuse for suspicionless stop and search, which the Government know will disproportionately impact black people?

Other than the morality or immorality of this Bill, as with other Bills I have worked on, I am concerned that the terms used are not sufficiently precise. It is all left to be defined by the Secretary of State, which is worrying, given the length of debate on “serious disruption” in the Police, Crime and Sentencing Bill. There is so much uncertainty about where the threshold for serious disruption lies—legal uncertainty being the opposite of what we should be striving for if we are to respect the rule of law.

The Bill is also excessively broad and the pre-emptive nature of it is disturbing. Have you ever watched a film called “Minority Report”, Madam Deputy Speaker? It had pre-cogs who could see into the future, and people would be arrested before they committed a crime. It sounds ridiculous—[Interruption.] I hear a Conservative Back Bencher say, “Good idea.” It sounds ridiculous and so does he. It sounds far-fetched, but in reality if this Bill passes you could be arrested, Madam Deputy Speaker, you could be charged, and you could end up in prison for something that you might have done.

I have barely touched the surface in these remarks, but I will make one final point, which was raised by Justice. Referring to clause 10, Justice points out that, while the clause creates an offence if a person

“intentionally obstructs a constable in the exercise of the constable’s powers”

of stop and search, with or without suspicion, the Met’s own guidance following the tragic murder of Sarah Everard is that people ask “very searching questions” of the officer, and notes that

“it is entirely reasonable for you to seek further reassurance of that officer’s identity and intentions”.

Anyone who did that at or near a designated protest area, as defined by the police, could end up getting 51 weeks in prison, a fine, or both.

The right to protest is the lifeblood of any democracy. It allows us to hold the powerful to account, which is precisely why they do not want it. It allows us to actively participate and to organise in our communities. History shows us that it is protest that often underpins political, economic and social change. Some of the most fundamental freedoms that we now have were won in spite of Governments. I will end by repeating what I said at the start: this Bill is all about oppressing and controlling the people out there, and they need to know about it. The stuff of conspiracy theories no more; this is the menacing new reality for those who do not agree with the Conservative Government. We should all be very afraid.