Caroline Lucas – 2022 Speech on the Public Order Bill

The speech made by Caroline Lucas, the Green MP for Brighton Pavilion, in the House of Commons on 23 May 2022.

This is a deeply dangerous Bill, and I am pleased to support the reasoned amendments. The measures in the Bill represent a fresh outright attack on our fundamental rights. Indeed, as others have said, the human rights organisation Liberty has called it a

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

We are in the grip of multiple crises: a cost of living scandal that is pushing millions of households into fuel and food poverty; a war in Ukraine with disastrous consequences; and the accelerating climate and nature emergencies. What we need at this critical juncture is more democracy, not less—not a ban on our constituents participating in certain protests, not subjecting them to 24-hour GPS monitoring for the crime of disagreeing with the Government, and not barring them from participation in public life.

Today I want to focus on serious disruption prevention orders. I will also touch on stop and search, and the creation of new offences. Serious disruption prevention orders are a form of banning order that might more accurately be called “sinister disproportionate political orders”. They are sinister because the idea that someone can be banned from attending a protest for up to two years simply because they have participated in at least two previous protests within a five-year period is nothing short of Orwellian.

People do not need to have been convicted of a crime to be subject to an order. They just need to have dared to exercise the right to take part in a peaceful protest: dared to have attended rallies against Brexit; dared to have marched against going to war; dared to have held our children’s hands as they went on climate strike. How will the police know whether someone falls into that category? How will they know that someone is engaged in other activities that the Bill deems unlawful, such as buying a bike lock or painting a banner? Thanks to drastically expanded surveillance powers, of course, about which I will say more shortly.

The world was rightly outraged by footage of peaceful protestors in Russia being bundled into police vans and silenced for opposing Putin’s war in Ukraine. Make no mistake, this clampdown on British citizens is cut from the same cloth. I will spell it out: an SDPO would completely remove someone’s right to attend a protest, and therefore must be resisted by any right-thinking person who values our democracy.

Proposals to impose sinister banning orders are nothing new, and have time and again been labelled disproportionate. In response to a previous iteration of such orders, Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary and fire and rescue services, and even the Home Office, issued the same warning about their impact on people’s ability to take part in protest. Her Majesty’s inspectorate stated:

“It is difficult to envisage a case where less intrusive measures could not be taken to address the risk that an individual poses, and where a court would therefore accept that it was proportionate to impose a banning order.”

In other words, the provisions in the Bill to restrict citizens are disproportionate to the supposed threats they seek to address.

Moreover, the Bill takes state surveillance to chilling new levels—for example, allowing electronic monitoring of someone subjected to an SDPO, with only the vaguest safeguards applying to any data collected, and the potential for associated negative impacts on individuals’ privacy and the wider community. It bears repeating that this could happen to someone who has committed no crime. As someone who has used parliamentary privilege in this place to open the lid on the immoral and arguably unlawful actions and sanctioning of police spies, this causes me considerable concern. The Home Office argues that such levels of interference are justified by the emergence of groups such as Insulate Britain and Just Stop Oil, but existing legislation—for example, the Public Order Act 1986 and the Protection from Harassment Act 1997—already grants the powers that reasonable policing of such protests demands.

The Bill is also disproportionate because the new offences could criminalise people for linking arms and having in their possession everyday items such as the bike locks that are simply “capable of causing” so-called “serious disruption”. There is no requirement for any disruption to be actually happening. The provisions just about fall short of policing people’s thoughts and intentions, but the direction of travel is clear and it should terrify us all.

The orders are sinister, disproportionate, and political—political, because the provisions allow far too much scope for police interpretation. On the new broad power for protest-specific stop and search, for example, a suspicion that someone might have knitting needles, a hoodie or even just a marker pen in their bag could be grounds for the police to act, but it does not stop there.

Mr Holden

The hon. Lady is making a powerful speech from her perspective. Could she ever consider a circumstance in which the section 60 stop and search power, which covers an area for a long period, is ever justifiable—or should it also be removed from the police?

Caroline Lucas

As others have said, evidence-based stop and search—where there is evidence and a good reason—is not in question. What is in question here is stop and search on the basis of a whim. As others have eloquently said, there is a very real danger of antagonising some groups who are already most disadvantaged, and therefore making the situation far worse.

The Government want to give the police powers to stop and search a person or a vehicle in a protest context, even when there are no grounds for suspicion. That will be permissible simply if a police officer believes that an offence—such as wilfully obstructing a highway or intentionally causing a public nuisance—might happen in the area or thinks that some people in the area might be carrying prohibited items; and there we are, back to the marker pens and knitting needles.

Protest is, by its very nature, liable to cause a public nuisance, disruption and noise, and to have specific targets, but real democratic leadership does not seek to ban opposition voices from protesting. Only a cowardly Government, who do not trust or respect their people, would take such a step.

Kit Malthouse

I wanted to ask whether the hon. Lady, notwithstanding her objection to the banning of protest, subscribes to the enthusiasm across the House for the ban of protests near abortion centres or clinics, and supports the creation of buffer zones that ban protests in those circumstances. If that is the case, is she possibly guilty of wanting to ban only protests with which she does not agree?

Caroline Lucas

I disagree with the premise of the Minister’s intervention. I have been proudly at the forefront of moves to say that women seeking their right to healthcare should not be subject to the personal, direct and threatening individual harassment that happens all too frequently outside abortion centres. I would wager that I have been on more demonstrations than anyone on the Government Benches—I have been arrested for them and I have been alongside them, and I have to say in parentheses that the characterisation of protesters by Government Members is wildly short of the mark—but I have seen nothing that is tantamount to the kind of harassment and direct intimidation that I have seen outside abortion centres, which is why the Minister’s comparison is not a reasonable one.

While I am on the subject of who protesters are, let me say that I am fascinated by the division between the protesters we support and those we do not. It seems to me that we support the ones who are silent and probably protesting in their own front rooms, because we do not like protest to be disruptive.

Tom Hunt

Will the hon. Member give way?

Caroline Lucas

No, I will not.

Protest is, by definition, disruptive. I can promise Government Members that the protesters I have been alongside include grandmothers who have never been on a protest before, nurses, doctors, teachers, care workers and people who collect the refuse. They are our community. I do not buy into the division that the Government are trying to make between a community on the one side and protesters on the other. The protesters are from those communities; they come up from them and are part of them. I say no to the kind of divisiveness that I have been hearing and we have been subjected to over and over again for the past five hours that we have been sat here.

Even if Ministers persist with this draconian and dangerous Bill, I sincerely hope that they will at least recognise the dangerous impact of already existing suspicionless stop and search powers, including their ineffectiveness, and their contribution to racial disproportionality and erosion of trust in the criminal justice system. I hope that the Government will not seek to extend them and therefore perpetuate such outcomes. More than that, though, my hope is that the Bill, which is riven with political ideology—and, frankly, puts the police in an untenable position—can be stopped in its tracks. I cannot find one shred of sense, proportionately or necessity in the Bill, and I hope that colleagues will join me in opposing it at every opportunity.