John McDonnell – 2022 Speech on the Public Order Bill

The speech made by John McDonnell, the Labour MP for Hayes and Harlington, in the House of Commons on 23 May 2022.

It is important that we always have regard to the scope and scale of the legislation that we introduce. I am really fearful about the scope and scale of the Bill, based on my constituency experience. The hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Dr Mullan) raised the issue of ensuring that we can go through the democratic process. There are times when we have gone through that democratic process and, unfortunately, the elected politicians have let us down.

Dr Mullan rose—

John McDonnell

Let me finish this point, so that I can explain. In my constituency, we have gone through the democratic process—often not to the extent or with the result that I wanted. For example, we have been promised time and again that there would be no further expansion at Heathrow. We were told,

“no third…runway, no ifs, no buts”

by the leader of the Conservative party and Prime Minister, but that was reneged on. We have been through public inquiries that have recommended no further expansion, but they have been reneged on. People therefore feel that they should look for an alternative that complements the balloting route. In my constituency, that in many instances has resulted in direct protest.

Dr Mullan

Is that not just the nature of democracy? Ultimately, in the longer term, we win or lose arguments; we do not win every single one, and we do not lose every single one. The right hon. Gentleman might have more credibility on this issue if he did not have a track record of encouraging direct action against Tory MPs and not letting us go about our daily lives without being disrupted and harassed.

John McDonnell

Fair enough. [Interruption.] No, the hon. Gentleman makes a proper point in the debate, no matter how inaccurate or distorted it is, but never mind. Let me explain—[Interruption.] Does the Bill cover activities in the Chamber? Sorry, I cannot help myself.

In all seriousness, let me explain why the scope and scale of the Bill may mean that it criminalises a large number of my constituents, and why they resort to direct action. They are not what we would describe as typical protesters: they are of a whole range of ages, and in fact Heathrow villages consistently voted for the Conservative party. Many people whom we would classify as normal Conservative voters have engaged in direct action. Why? Because they have endured the noise, the air pollution, the respiratory conditions, the cardiac problems as well as—research now tells us—the increase in cancers in our area as a direct result of pollution from the airport.

If Heathrow expansion goes ahead, 4,000 homes will be demolished, according to the last inquiry, so 10,000 of my constituents would lose their home. That is why people feel so strongly. They are angry because we will lose our gurdwara and three schools, and our church will be isolated from the rest of the community. They have been legitimately angry, because they feel that Governments—of, I must say, all political parties that have been in government—have consistently let them down. At one time, the proposal was for the expansion to go through our cemetery, so there was the prospect of people having to disinter loved ones buried in our constituency.

We can understand why my constituents are angry. What did they do? We held public meetings and tried to hold Ministers to account. All that failed, so my constituents resorted to direct action. They blocked roads, they marched, they demonstrated and they sat down in the road. Climate Camp attached itself to the land; under the Bill, that will become an offence. And yes, there was a gluing-on campaign. Actually, one campaigner tried for six months to glue himself to Gordon Brown. It never worked, but there we are. Can Gordon Brown be defined as national infrastructure? My constituents have gone through an training exercise on locking themselves on—not to infrastructure outside their home, but to things inside their home, so as to prevent demolition. That is the strength of feeling there is. Whole families have been motivated to cause disruption by the threat to their community, livelihood, home, church, gurdwara, community centre and local environment, because, unfortunately, politicians have consistently deceived them.

It is difficult to know what is serious disruption, which is grounds for arrest. The demonstrations we have been on caused a large amount of noise; did that cause serious disruption? They have, of course, caused traffic jams. Is it a question of the length of time that people have to wait in a traffic jam? In all the demonstrations that I have been on, there has been no prevention of the passage of emergency vehicles. We need clarity in clauses 3 and 4 on what serious disruption is.

The other issue is: what is the definition of national infrastructure? In my constituency, is it just anything within the Heathrow airport boundary? Is it the roads feeding into the airport? How far downstream from the airport does “national infrastructure” go? Virtually every road in my constituency somehow leads to the airport, so any demonstration in the constituency could be designated an offence under this legislation.

Tom Hunt

It seems to me that the right hon. Gentleman feels that sometimes direct action is justified, but that perhaps on other occasions it is not. Will he expand on who should decide whether it is justifiable? Would it be the representative Government or him?

John McDonnell

My constituents and I have taken the view that because expansion is such a threat to our community, we are willing to engage in direct action, and if we are prosecuted under existing law, we take it on the chin. We go to court, explain our case and accept the fine or whatever. That is the reality of it. That is the way it works. The Bill, however, takes things to another level. One way we have protested is by blocking the tunnel at Heathrow for an hour. Well, we have never really stayed there that long; we have stayed there for half an hour, done a deal with the police and then dispersed. A number of my constituents were fined for that. We went to court, which gave them the opportunity to express their views about what was going on, and to expose what was happening. In some ways, it gained us maximum publicity. Under the Bill, however, they could be serving a sentence of a year, or could have an unlimited fine.

There is an issue of balance and fairness. There is something about British democracy that we have to uphold here, because we have a long tradition of people like my constituents saying to the state, “This far and no further. You are going beyond the bounds of the mandate on which you were elected.”

Kit Malthouse

Does the right hon. Gentleman acknowledge that sentencing is not just about handing out a punishment? It is about deterring people from committing the offence again. Obstructing the highway attracts a level-3 fine of up to £1,000, but that does not seem to have any impact on the willingness of some protestors to do it time and again. Is there not some justification in using sentencing as a deterrent there?

John McDonnell

The problem is—and here I follow the advice of Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary and fire and rescue services—that the measures will not be a deterrent. All they will do is incentivise many more people to come forward, because this will make them angry and it will cause undue suffering. I am just giving a concrete example of what the good people in my constituency are doing. If Members thought a road was going to be built through their local cemetery, and that their relatives would have to be dug up, I doubt any of them would not join the demonstration. A number of Conservative MPs and councillors did join us.

Wera Hobhouse

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that these draconian measures are a sign of the weakness of a Government who are on the defensive?

John McDonnell

I will finish on the motivation in a minute or two.

On stop and search, in my constituency, we have come to terms with the orders that designate certain wards enabling access on the streets for stop and search on the basis of where there are serious drug problems or where there has been a knife attack and so on. People have come to terms with that. Not everyone is supportive of it, but they have come to terms with it. I do not think they would be able to come to terms with the designation of a whole area in my constituency just because there might be a demonstration at Heathrow. It would mean having to designate the whole of the Heathrow villages area. On the issue of suspicion of carrying materials, you would need a police squad outside every shop in the Heathrow villages, because every one of my constituents in those areas could be seen as suspicious when they go to purchase something.

Mr Holden

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

John McDonnell

Can I not this time? The hon. Member will understand.

Let me just say this on the serious disruption prevention orders. The extent by which they curtail freedom is beyond anything we have ever seen before. We are talking about people who are protesting on a whole range of issues. They have not committed a serious violent offence or anything like that. As the HMICFRS has said, it is not compatible with human rights.

In conclusion, this is an incursion into basic human democratic freedoms—an incursion too far. The motivation —I will be frank—is a populist attempt to garner support for a Conservative party that is deeply unpopular at times at the moment. I also think—my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds East (Richard Burgon) raised this point—the Government are fearful that demonstrations will mount as we go through the next 12 months because of the impact of the cost of living crisis. I think it is in fear of those demonstrations that they are introducing this legislation. It will do more harm than good and make more people disillusioned with the political process. I say to Conservative Members: be careful what you wish for because this will push more people into more forms of direct action—and forms of direct action that none of us would want to see. We all treasure our democratic rights and that is why I will vote against the Bill tonight.