Kit Malthouse – 2022 Speech on the Public Order Bill

The speech made by Kit Malthouse, the Minister for Crime and Policing, in the House of Commons on 23 May 2022.

I have listened to others with pleasure, Madam Deputy Speaker. We have had a debate with a vigorous exchange of views, although I am afraid it was largely bifurcated. There was a group of speeches on the end of democracy: “Here we go, fascism is on its way,” or “We are about to become North Korea”—although I am sure the right hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) would not think that an entirely backward step. The speeches made by the right hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) and the hon. Members for Bath (Wera Hobhouse), for Norwich South (Clive Lewis), for Streatham (Bell Ribeiro-Addy), for Middlesbrough (Andy McDonald), for Edmonton (Kate Osamor), for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas), for Salford and Eccles (Rebecca Long Bailey), for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) and for Battersea (Marsha De Cordova) were all of a kind, predicting the end of democracy as we know it. Among the froth of outrage and alarm, there were some nuggets of questions that need to be answered, particularly on why we chose to bring back the Bill after it was roundly rejected by the House of Lords. Well, their key criticism was that the Bill had not had enough scrutiny in this House, so we brought it back as soon as we could for the scrutiny of hon. Members.

A number of hon. Members claimed that there is no public support for the Bill whereas, in fact, recent polling shows that a majority of the British public support it. There was a lot of focus on and concern about stop and search powers in the Bill. We should all take stop and search powers seriously, and look at them with care, but there seems to be a misapprehension among a number of Members about how the provision will operate, particularly regarding disproportionality and demographics. The notion is that the police will authorise an area for the equivalent of section 60 stop and search that will be where they believe the protest is likely to take place or where people will approach the protest. Therefore, the demographics of those searched are likely to reflect those attending the protest, rather than generally across the board as with other stop and search powers.

Getting ahead of those who are likely to lock on or take other equipment with them to protest will give the police an important head start in stopping some of the prolonged and difficult protests with which they have to deal and which often put them in danger. A number of Members asked why key infrastructure, such as hospitals and NHS sites, are not covered in the Bill. There are already offences that cover those areas in other legislation, so we do not need to cover them here.

I thought that two speeches in particular illustrated some of the issues. The hon. Member for Glasgow North East (Anne McLaughlin) was alarmist in her portrayal of the direction in which the Government are going on protest, but nevertheless was not seen throwing herself between Police Scotland and the oil protesters at Clydebank, when they were carted off and arrested. Then there was the conundrum faced by the hon. Member for Ealing Central and Acton (Dr Huq): she has happily accepted restrictions on protest outside abortion clinics and, in previous legislation, outside schools and vaccination centres—privileging them, quite rightly, as areas where protesters may come into conflict with those who are going to school or undergoing sensitive medical procedures, or indeed those denying vaccination—but I still cannot see the logic of then not applying some controls on protest outside other facilities or other people’s houses. [Interruption.]

There were some thoughtful speeches that added to the debate, including that of my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Richard Fuller), who posed some interesting questions that we will address in Committee. I am more than happy to engage with him as he ponders the Bill. The Chair of the Home Affairs Committee, the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Dame Diana Johnson), also asked some probing questions to which we will give some thought as the Bill passes through the House.

We heard two interesting speeches about the two sides of protest. The right hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington spoke about a community who have been using protest to further what they regard as their interest against, as he put it, the changing winds of political decision about Heathrow. My hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Nickie Aiken) put the other side of the argument—about living with protest. Having lived in very central London for many years, I know the burden that protest can bring to residents and businesses in that part of town. The relentlessness of it—week in, week out, seemingly every weekend—can really prey upon people’s standard of living.

Then we come to the frankly hilarious contortions of the shadow Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper), and the shadow Policing Minister, the hon. Member for Croydon Central (Sarah Jones), where we see in full the contradictions writ large in the body politic of the Labour party. First, the Front Benchers want a nationwide ban via injunctions, but not criminal sanctions. The right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford condemns Just Stop Oil and XR but is unwilling to do anything about them, and she believes that injunctions, which sometimes take six weeks to bring people to justice, will be faster than a criminal offence.

The truth is that the right hon. Lady’s objective this evening is not to fashion legislation that will deal with new tactics in public order. It is to get her party through the same Lobby in once piece, and at the same time to keep her head down, because we know that she has form; back in 2005, she was the Minister in a Government who voted to ban protest entirely within half a mile of this place. Famously, the first arrest was of a woman reading the names of the Iraq war dead at the Cenotaph. The right hon. Lady has form and Labour Members all know it—she is just trying to get them through the Lobby in one piece.

My hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Danny Kruger), who is my constituency neighbour, made a thoughtful speech in which he nailed fundamentally the issue with which we are wrestling. As I said in the debate that we had on protest in respect of the PCSC Bill, the job of a democratic Government is to balance competing rights in any scenario, but most importantly in respect of protest. How do we balance that most fundamental right to make our voices known, to protest about those things that are important to us and to try to bring about change? As my hon. Friend quite rightly said, this is about balancing moral force against physical force. The use of moral force is legitimate in a democratic society, but the use of physical force to bring about what one wants to see is less so.

Yvette Cooper

The Minister talks about the extension of the powers of stop and search in the Bill; will he confirm that the Bill will make it possible for the police to stop and search people to try to find something that makes noise—such as a boombox, because that could contribute to a protest offence—and will also allow the stopping and searching of peaceful passers-by who walk through Parliament Square?

Kit Malthouse

It would depend on which part of the Bill they used for their powers. In essence, they would be stopping and searching people to look for equipment that could be used in the commission of an offence. I know the right hon. Lady will not want to confuse colleagues, but she possibly confuses the conditions that can be placed on a protest with the criminal offences that may ensue from a protest. The police will use their stop-and-search powers to deal with those criminal offences.

Let me return to my thread. As my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes said, we cannot allow our tradition of liberty to be used against us. Sadly, over the past few years we have seen, time and again, so-called protesters abuse our fundamental rights to make our views known to bring about their opinionated aggression, thereby impacting on people’s lives in a way that we feel is unwarranted. When I was a young politics student at university, I was taught by a member of the Labour party and great liberal thinker called Professor Hugh Berrington, who once said to me in a lecture I have never forgotten: “Being a liberal democracy doesn’t mean lying back and allowing yourself to be kicked in the stomach.” Sadly, too many of these so-called protesters—they masquerade as protesters but they are really criminals—bring about opinionated aggression that we believe is unacceptable.

We know that we have the support of the majority of the British public. Opposition Members have lightly lain aside the rights of the British public, but they have been championed in this debate by my hon. Friends the Members for Ipswich (Tom Hunt), for Dudley North (Marco Longhi), for Runnymede and Weybridge (Dr Spencer), for Stockton South (Matt Vickers), for Peterborough (Paul Bristow) and for Ashfield (Lee Anderson). In particular, my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) yet again gave a bravura performance in defence of not only the ancient right of protest but the ancient British quality of proportion and moderation in everything.

Paul Bristow

Does my right hon. Friend remember recently visiting my Peterborough constituency? He saw it for himself when he met police officers, members of the public and many fine people in my constituency. Does he agree that the majority of the people in my constituency support this Bill and the powers in it?

Kit Malthouse

I do agree with my hon. Friend, but you do not have to take it from me, Madam Deputy Speaker. You can take it from any polling that has been done recently that shows that the majority of the British people support the measures that we are taking.

My hon. Friend brings me to my final point, which was neatly illustrated when I visited Peterborough and looked at its work on knife crime. What the British people actually want is for their police officers—men and women—to spend their time fighting crime, not detaching protesters from fuel gantries, not unsticking them from the M25, and not having to surround fuel dumps in Essex so that the petrol can get out to the people who need it to go about their daily business. The British people want the police to be catching rapists and putting them behind bars, detecting paedophiles and making sure that they pay for their crimes, and stopping young people of all types being murdered on a regular basis. That is what we want our police officers to do. This Bill will release them to do that job, and I hope that the House will support it.