Diana Johnson – 2022 Speech on the Public Order Bill

The speech made by Diana Johnson, the Labour MP for Kingston upon Hill North, in the House of Commons on 23 May 2022.

I am sure we can all agree that we need to protect our freedoms of speech, of protest and of assembly as a vital part of our democracy. We already have many laws to deal with protest and to protect the public and our major infrastructure. Any extension of those laws needs to be very carefully considered by this place. I am a little surprised, therefore, that the Government have decided to bring forward this legislation from the Home Office first in this new parliamentary Session, when we are still waiting for the regulations from the protest offences in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022, which was the major Home Office Bill in the previous Session.

I was also hoping, as the Chair of the Home Affairs Committee, that the specific recommendations in our recently published report, “Investigation and prosecution of rape”, to improve the experience of victims would be brought forward in legislation through a victims Bill. I was also hoping that our recent report on spiking, which recommended a new offence of spiking, would be in prime place for legislation to be brought forward, but we are where we are today, and this is the Bill before us.

I have several concerns about the Public Order Bill, which I hope Ministers may be able to address. Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary and fire and rescue services considered many of the proposals in the Bill in its report of March 2021, “Getting the balance right? An inspection of how effectively the police deal with protests”. Clearly, looking at the reports of the inspectorate is incredibly helpful in developing evidence-based policy that can stand up to effective scrutiny, and the report has already been quoted widely in the Chamber this afternoon.

The report found that

“most interviewees did not wish to criminalise protest actions through the creation of a specific offence concerning locking-on.”

The report also concluded that it did not support the introduction of protest banning orders. I noted what the Home Secretary said in her opening remarks about wanting to back the police. That is very important, so will the Policing Minister be able to explain when winding up the evidential basis for bringing forward these particular proposals and the basis on which the Home Office has come to a different conclusion from the inspectorate?

I also want to raise issues about the actual terms in the Bill. The term “protest” appears 21 times, the term “protest-related disruption” appears 31 times and the term “serious disruption” appears 118 times. However, none of those terms is defined on the face of the Bill. To ensure that the powers conferred in this Bill are used proportionately, and only when absolutely necessary—and to prevent legal uncertainty—I hope that the Minister will commit to ensuring that the Bill will include definitions of those terms.

On the proposed extension of stop and search powers, in July 2021, the Home Affairs Committee published “The Macpherson Report: Twenty-two years on”, which found that there are still deep-rooted and persistent racial disparities in policing, particularly in the use of stop and search. Our report found that statistics covering the year to 31 March 2020 showed ethnic disproportionality in stop and search is worse now than it was 22 years ago. Black people in 2020-21 were seven times more likely to be stopped and searched than white people, and that was up from five times more likely in 1998. The disproportionality in “no suspicion” searches is even more stark. In 2019-20, black people were 18 times more likely than white people to be stopped under section 60. With such clear ethnic disproportionality occurring, can the Minister explain how the Home Office will tackle those existing disparities with this plan to extend stop and search?

I note that, in the Bill’s equality impact assessment, the Government state that safeguards exist to mitigate the disproportionate use of stop and search, such as the use of body-worn cameras and extensive data collection on the use of these powers. However, in 2021, Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary said:

“Too few forces regularly review body-worn video footage”,

and

“too many forces still do not analyse and monitor enough information and data on stop and search to understand”

how to apply stop and search fairly.

Furthermore, the amendment under clause 7 to the police power to stop and search under section 1 of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 will allow the police to take pre-emptive action against those suspected of being about to engage in protest-related offences. What specific safeguards will the Government put in place to ensure that such pre-emptive action will not breach a person’s rights under articles 10 and 11 of the European convention on human rights?

Finally, I want to speak briefly about buffer zones for abortion clinics. The Bill does not legislate for that, but it should. My hon. Friend the Member for Ealing Central and Acton (Dr Huq) has led efforts in this House for some time for change on that matter, and I will continue to support her, including any amendments to this Bill that she tables. In the light of recent events, the Government should also consider buffer zones outside schools and vaccine clinics. But to return to the issue of buffer zones for abortion clinics, for too long, women in England have faced real intimidation and real harassment outside clinics providing abortion care. The Court of Appeal of England and Wales has confirmed that protesters can cause

“significant emotional and psychological damage”.

One woman described her experience visiting an abortion clinic in April this year:

“They came over twice and we said, ‘No thank you.’ She was very pushy, in your face…it has left me anxious as I suffer from poor mental health. When we walked past, she said, ‘Your baby wants to live.’ We had driven for 7 1/2 hours and did not expect this at all.”

Women accessing a legal and essential form of healthcare should not be subject to harassment. Both Scotland and Northern Ireland have begun to take steps to implement buffer zones and it is time that England did. I hope that the House will have an opportunity to vote on that in due course.