Mick Whitley – 2022 Speech on the Public Order Bill

The speech made by Mick Whitley, the Labour MP for Birkenhead, in the House of Commons on 23 May 2022.

It says everything we need to know about this Government’s priorities that their first Bill since the Queen’s Speech does not seek to address an out-of-control cost of living crisis, ensure that justice is done for the 1.3 million victims of crime who were forced out of the criminal justice system last year, or indeed deliver any of the people’s priorities. Instead, Conservative Members, who have so often styled themselves as the champions of individual liberty, have lined up today to defend this latest assault on our basic rights of peaceful protest and public assembly.

The Home Secretary has resurrected and repackaged some of the most draconian provisions of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which were rightly thrown out by colleagues in the other place earlier this year, and has returned them to this House, but the issues remain the same. The Bill is unworkable, disproportionate and deeply illiberal. The Home Secretary wants to silence the voices of protesters outside this House, but we must ensure that they are heard loud and clear today. We must kill this Bill.

It is not just about a single piece of legislation, but about the direction of this Government as a whole, and the creeping authoritarianism that increasingly characterises their every step. After years of being told that we had to free ourselves from the supposed despotism of the European Union, we now find ourselves subject to the whims of an Administration far more oppressive and contemptuous of dissent than any ever found in Brussels. From the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act and the Nationality and Borders Act to the Bill before us today, Ministers have come to this House month after month armed with legislation that seems more suited to Viktor Orbán’s Hungary than to a robust liberal democracy.

The right to protest, the right to boycott and even the right to strike seem set for the Tory chopping block. We are forced to contemplate with horror a future in which the rights and freedoms for which earlier generations fought and died have been trampled underfoot. We must not allow that to happen. I plead with colleagues on the Government Benches—there are not many of them here, by the way—and especially with those hon. Members who bemoaned mask madness as a symptom of Government tyranny, but who remain conveniently silent on this issue of actual importance, to join me in the No Lobby today.

Finally, I want to speak out about those environmental campaigners whose actions have repeatedly been invoked as justification for these draconian measures. I have no intention of justifying their tactics or some of their campaigns, which have caused significant disruption and even misery to working-class communities, but I find it interesting that a handful of activists blockading an oil refinery can set the wheels of Government spinning so quickly, while the imminent prospect of breaching the 1.5° global warming threshold musters, at best, empty rhetoric and unrealisable targets from those on the Government Benches.

As the northern hemisphere approaches a summer that is likely to be characterised by record-breaking heatwaves and power outages, I wonder how history will judge a Government who prioritise criminalising climate protesters over tackling the unfolding climate catastrophe.