Priti Patel – 2022 Statement on the Public Order Bill

The statement made by Priti Patel, the Home Secretary, in the House of Commons on 23 May 2022.

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

From day one, this Government have put the safety and the interests of the law-abiding majority first. We have put 13,500 more police on the streets, and we are on track to reach nearly 20,000 new police officers by March next year.

Yvette Cooper (Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford) (Lab)

Will the Home Secretary give way—already?

Priti Patel

I think I will make some progress, if that is okay.

This Conservative Government understand that if we are to cut crime, level up the country and make sure that people feel safe in their homes, on public transport and on the street, we need to back our police officers by giving them the powers and the tools they need to fight crime and protect the public. That was one of the main purposes of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022, which Opposition Members voted against. It also requires proper investment, which is why we are funding the police to the tune of almost £17 billion this year. We are helping the police to tackle violence against women and girls through major investment in safer streets measures—closed circuit television and more street lighting—and initiatives across the country. Earlier this month, I announced that I am strengthening stop-and-search powers, because stop and search is vital to get knives and weapons off our streets and save lives. Each weapon removed from our streets is a potential life saved. More than 50,000 weapons have been seized since 2019 already. I have also authorised special constables to carry and use Tasers.

The police service is not just an institution, but a collection of professional and dedicated people. They are extremely brave, as are their families. The introduction of the police covenant ensures that we will do right by officers and their loved ones, who do so much to support them.

Recently, we have seen a rise in criminal, disruptive and self-defeating tactics from a supremely selfish minority. Their actions divert police resources away from the communities where they are needed most to prevent serious violence and neighbourhood crime. We are seeing parts of the country grind to a halt. Transport networks have been stopped, printing presses blocked and fuel supplies disrupted. People have been unable to get to work and go about their lives free from harassment. Shamefully, they have even been prevented from getting to hospital. This is reprehensible behaviour and I will not tolerate it.

Mr Richard Holden (North West Durham) (Con)

I am particularly interested in seeing whether this Bill will target people such as Extinction Rebellion founder Roger Hallam. I was reading about him recently. He said that he would block an ambulance carrying a dying patient in order to make his political point. Will the Home Secretary ensure that people who would go to those extremes will be properly targeted by that legislation and thrown in jail if they carry out such actions?

Priti Patel

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We should not tolerate behaviour that prevents people from going about their day-to-day business and stops them getting to hospital and living their lives.

We brought forward measures to address some of these matters in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill. While the Bill was enacted last month, the unelected other place blocked several measures, egged on by Opposition Members. We should not be surprised: Labour is weak on crime and weak on the causes of crime. It seems to care only about the rights of criminals.

Since January 2019, more than 10,000 foreign national offenders have been removed from the United Kingdom. In the past month alone, flights have gone to Albania, Romania, Poland, Lithuania and Jamaica. It was actually a Labour Government who oversaw the UK Borders Act 2007, which requires a deportation order to be made when a foreign national has been convicted of an offence in the UK and sentenced to 12 months or more, unless an exception applies. However, Labour Members, including members of the shadow Cabinet, now demand that we stop the removal of dangerous foreign criminals. They refused to support the Nationality and Borders Act 2022, which makes it easier to remove people with no right to be here, including foreign national offenders.

Many dangerous criminals, including paedophiles, murderers and rapists, are still in this country because of Labour Members. It is no surprise that Labour thinks mobs should be allowed to run riot, but I will not stand by and let antisocial individuals participate in criminal damage and disruptive activity that stops people living their lives and causes chaos and misery. The Public Order Bill will empower the police to take more proactive action to protect the public’s right to go about their lives in peace.

Richard Burgon (Leeds East) (Lab)

I thank the Home Secretary for giving way, and I hope she gives way to my Front-Bench colleague, my right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper), in due course.

I have been listening carefully to the Home Secretary. In the context of this cost of living emergency, the Government are threatening anti-trade union legislation and pursuing voter suppression through voter ID, and draconian anti-protest laws are now being brought in. Will the Home Secretary come clean and admit that this Government know that their economic policies will be increasingly unpopular, so they want to remove everyone’s right to resist and fight back, whether through voting, industrial action or peaceful protest?

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Eleanor Laing)

Order. The hon. Gentleman indicated to me that he would like to speak in the debate, and that he would like to speak not at the end of the debate. He has just made half of his speech, which puts me in rather a difficult position, and I hope everyone else will remember that. Interventions are good for debate, but they must be short.

Priti Patel

Let me put the hon. Gentleman’s remarks into context. First and foremost, the right to protest is part of the freedom and democracy that we all cherish in our country, and no one should interfere with that right at all. But I suggest to all hon. Members on the Opposition Benches—some of them write to me frequently to complain about the removal of criminals, foreign national offenders and so forth—that the types of protest specific to the Bill are those where a significant amount of disruption has been caused. He speaks about economic policies, the cost of living and costs to taxpayers. The protests around High Speed 2 have led to an estimated cost of £122 million. Policing Extinction Rebellion protests between April and October 2019 cost the public purse £37 million. The “Just Stop Oil” protests—as Essex Members of Parliament, Madam Deputy Speaker, we will appreciate this, along with our constituents—left Essex police alone with costs of £4.6 million. That is resource from the frontline that is used elsewhere. That resource could be used to protect our communities. That is why these measures are so important.

We all passionately believe in causes. The hon. Gentleman and others on both sides of the House speak with passion on a range of causes—we in this House are advocates and representatives of the people—but we do not make policy as a country through mob rule, or disruption in the way in which we have seen. No democracy can do that. No democracy needs to do that. The protesters involved in the examples that I presented have better, alternative routes to make their voices heard, and they know that.

Mike Amesbury (Weaver Vale) (Lab) rose—

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab) rose—

Jonathan Gullis (Stoke-on-Trent North) (Con) rose—

Priti Patel

I give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) and then I will come back to the other hon. Members.

Jonathan Gullis

The Home Secretary talks about the “Just Stop Oil” protests. Does she share my concern that those protesters seem to think that cooking oil is something we should be stopping in this country?

Priti Patel

I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. Again, as a country and as a House, we are confronted with challenges around livelihoods, wellbeing and cost of living right now. These protesters are not doing a great deal to support individuals to get to work and to go out and support their families. We must be very conscious about all that.

Several hon. Members rose—

Priti Patel

I will give way to the hon. Member for Weaver Vale (Mike Amesbury) because he stood up first.

Mike Amesbury

I thank the Home Secretary for giving way. In the Trident retail park in my constituency, a young woman has just been beaten senseless. Her jaw has been broken in four places. The Home Secretary spoke about mob rule. A bunch—a minority—of young people believe that they are given free rein. There is a lack of neighbourhood and community policing. Cuts have consequences. Twenty-two thousand police were cut over 12 years and that has serious consequences for people’s lives. What is the Home Secretary going to do about that? That is a real noise in communities.

Priti Patel

The hon. Gentleman highlights an absolutely appalling case of serious violence against his constituent —an appalling level of violence. No, we should not tolerate that at all. But with all respect to him, he represents a party that has voted against the Government’s work on police, crime, sentencing and courts as well as the resources that we put into policing. He asked what we are doing about that. Our unequivocal support and backing of the police is absolutely based on that, along with ensuring that criminal sentencing and prosecutions go up, working with the Ministry of Justice and, alongside that, ensuring that we provide the resources to ensure that perpetrators are brought to justice. With respect, the Labour party has repeatedly voted against that.

Chris Bryant

I prefer the cheery version of the Home Secretary, if I am honest. In my constituency, we have a high level of domestic abuse—it is higher than in any neighbouring constituency—and the local police want to do something about it, working with all the other agencies, but one of the problems is that, because of shift patterns, often, the police officer who starts dealing with a case is not the one available when the victim of the domestic abuse has to get back in touch. How can we restructure the police so that we really tackle the big issues that affect places such as the Rhondda?

Priti Patel

First, let me thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. If I may, I am going to offer him the chance to come and have a conversation with me about local policing in his area. There are a couple of points I want to make here first. He asks a useful question about structuring policing. A lot of work is taking place right now on domestic abuse and domestic violence. We want consistency across all police forces on how victims are treated, how to address the whole issue around perpetrators, the support that goes directly to the frontline and raising the bar. He is very welcome to come and have further conversations about that but, in the context of the Bill, if the police were not having to use the amount of resourcing that these protesters are consuming, there would be more policing in the community and more support for his and all our constituents. That is something we would all welcome.

Edward Timpson (Eddisbury) (Con)

Five years ago, in the run-up to the 2017 general election, an organised group of people forced their way on to my property, where my family were living. We had just had a baby and we were forced out for three days under police protection while the group stayed on top of our roof with loudhailers. Unfortunately, the police were not able to move them on because at that time trespass was just a civil matter. Although we have strengthened the law since then, what is in the Bill that could help people who may find themselves in, if not exactly that situation, a similar situation, which is very distressing and harassing for people on their own private property?

Priti Patel

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. He highlights the appalling nature of what we see. That is not peaceful protest at all, but threatening and intimidating. He will know only too well, as someone in public life, the implications of that. He asks directly about the Bill. Serious disruption prevention orders will help hugely with that, which is why the Bill is so significant. Protesters have routes to have their voices heard, and with that better routes and avenues to change policy, and they know that.

A free society does not tolerate interference in our democratic free press, and in the printing or distribution of our newspapers. As we know, we have also seen that in the last few years. Nobody civilised would dream of stopping someone getting to work or children going to school, let alone blocking ambulances. I am afraid we have seen all those examples all too frequently. So we will not be deterred from backing the police and standing up for the law-abiding majority, and that is what this Public Order Bill does.

First, the Bill introduces a new offence for locking on and going equipped to lock on, criminalising the protest tactic of people intentionally causing pandemonium by locking themselves on to busy roads, a building or scaffolding. Locking on can be an extremely dangerous and disruptive tactic. Protesters locking on from great heights place at risk not only themselves but police removal teams. I spent a great deal of time with specialist, highly trained and equipped police removal teams. The tactics they are experiencing are heavily dangerous and, as we touched on, drain a significant amount of police time and resources.

Stewart Hosie (Dundee East) (SNP)

On the offence of locking on, the Bill states:

“It is a defence for a person charged…to prove that they had a reasonable excuse for the act mentioned”.

If their excuse is that they were trying to stop the destruction of a historic building or to protect a site of special scientific interest from destruction, would that be reasonable? Would that be a defence of the purported crime of locking on?

Priti Patel

The right hon. Gentleman naturally raises the type of questions that will also be brought up in the Bill Committee. To use a recent example, which he may be familiar with, during the High Speed 2 work, specific sites and all sorts of significant places were targeted under the guise of environmental concerns. The Bill has to, and should, take such considerations into account in terms of police commitments, the level of violence and the serious disruption that some of these tactics also bring.

Secondly, we are strengthening the security of our transport networks, oil terminals and printing presses by creating new criminal offences of obstructing major transport works and interfering with key national infrastructure.

Dr Luke Evans (Bosworth) (Con)

On the offence of locking on, we have seen people gluing themselves to various roads and gates and such things. Would that be covered under the Bill?

Priti Patel

Yes, and my hon. Friend highlights just some of the tactics that are used. I have seen the sheer manpower and excessive resource used by our specialist policing teams to literally de-glue protesters. It takes hours and hours and comes with a significant cost and use of resources. That is just one example, along with the example of locking on.

We cannot be passive when individuals target our infrastructure and major infrastructure works and projects. I mentioned HS2; HS2 Ltd estimates that ongoing protester action has already cost it more than £122 million. The recent action by Just Stop Oil against oil terminals and fuel stations, including forecourts, have shown further that the police need additional powers to deal with and combat that.

Thirdly, we are providing the police with the power to stop and search people for equipment used for certain public order offences, so that they can prevent the disruption from happening in the first place. I am sure the House will be interested to hear that during the last year—in fact, in just over a year—the police have found the equivalent of training camps, where these tactics and groups come together and where they hoard and harvest equipment. The police now have the powers to disrupt that type of activity in the first place.

The police have indicated that these powers will help them practically to prevent the disruption that offences such as locking on can cause, while the suspicion-less stop-and-search powers will help the police to respond quickly in a fast-paced protest.

Janet Daby (Lewisham East) (Lab)

I am really concerned that the Bill will allow police officers to stop and search protesters without suspicion. Does the Secretary of State really think that it is fair and right that innocent people should be—or are allowed to be—stopped and searched when there is no suspicion? Does she also think that that is the best use of police time and resources?

Priti Patel

To put this into context, I remind the House that Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary and fire and rescue services has argued that stop-and-search powers would be an effective tool for the police in this case. Stop and search is a critical tool in policing and, as I highlighted, is absolutely crucial when it comes to saving lives and preventing the loss of life.

Dr Julian Lewis (New Forest East) (Con)

I am a little concerned about the point raised by the right hon. Member for Dundee East (Stewart Hosie), because many, if not most, of these protesters feel that their cause is the most important thing in the world—in fact, some of them think that they are saving the world. If, therefore, they can give excuses of that sort by way of a reasonable explanation of what they are doing, is not the legislation leaving a loophole? In particular, I have in mind some previous cases where anti-nuclear protesters broke into military bases and damaged military equipment, and certain courts felt that they should be acquitted because their motives were to try to prevent nuclear war, even if, in fact, it has the opposite effect.

Priti Patel

Outcomes will be for the court to decide, but it is worth noting the numbers of arrests at recent protests: more than 4,000 with Extinction Rebellion, more than 1,000 with Insulate Britain and more than 800 with Just Stop Oil. I have already touched on the cost of policing, but there is also an associated level of criminality and criminal damage, which is why those cases have gone further.

The fourth measure that we are introducing is a new preventive court order. The serious disruption prevention order will target protesters who are determined to inflict disruption repeatedly on the public and cause serious criminal damage, which is one of the most recent disruptive features that we have been seeing. I have to say that there have also been threats to public safety, particularly at oil protests. I have recently visited some of the sites and been in touch with companies whose sites have been targeted. The threats to life and threats to local areas from the tactics being used are very serious.

For a serious disruption prevention order, an individual will have to have been convicted of two or more protest-related offences or instances of behaviour at protests that caused, or could have caused, serious disruption. Courts will have the discretion to impose any requirements and prohibitions that they deem necessary to prevent individuals from inflicting further serious disruption at protests.

Andy McDonald (Middlesbrough) (Lab)

Is the Home Secretary aware that there is a direct comparison between the Russian law on assemblies that has been passed by Putin, and the measures that she is proposing? [Interruption.] Conservative Members can chunter, but these measures go further than Vladimir Putin’s laws on assembly. Is the Home Secretary not slightly embarrassed and uncomfortable about that comparison?

Priti Patel

With respect to the hon. Gentleman, equating the actions of the Russian state to suppress the views of brave Russian citizens who speak out to oppose Putin’s brutal war with our proportionate updating of the long-established legal framework for policing protests is just wrong and misguided. Let me be very clear: these measures are not about clamping down on free speech, but about protecting the public from serious disruption of their daily lives by harmful protests.

Dr Caroline Johnson (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con)

My constituents are horrified by disruption that prevents people from getting to hospital or work and children from getting to school, but they are also concerned about the huge economic impact. Can the Home Secretary tell us how much these policing operations have cost? My constituents and I believe that the money could be much better spent on proper policing, rather than on having to police protesters causing disruption.

Priti Patel

My hon. Friend is absolutely right; her constituents are right to be outraged and concerned, and she is voicing their concerns as their representative in the House. In 2019 alone, the cost to the public purse of the Extinction Rebellion protests was £37 million. The cost of the HS2 protests is estimated at £122 million. In my county of Essex, where I have spent a great deal of time with the amazing teams, the cost has been more than £4.6 million. When I visited the Navigator site, I met police officers from Scotland, Wales, Devon and Cornwall, such is the extent of the resources that have to be brought in to police these protests.

Richard Fuller (North East Bedfordshire) (Con)

I may be the sole dissenting voice on the Government Benches about some of these provisions. When my right hon. Friend talks about specific examples, particularly those relating to infrastructure, the population can get strongly behind her points. However, several clauses of the Bill are drawn very broadly and there is legitimate concern about how they will be applied. What reassurance can she give me that she seeks a tightly scripted Bill, rather than a general threat to our individual freedoms?

Priti Patel

I thank my hon. Friend for his question and comments; he is absolutely right. That is the purpose of scrutiny of the Bill. We know from the past two years of protest activity that the police are seeking clarification about certain requests and powers. We are looking at how the courts can work much better to take action, and how to ensure that policing resources are not being cannibalised or used in this way. That is why I think we are right to focus on the core aspects of disruption and the key tenets that need to be addressed, and the Policing Minister has been working on that in particular.

Finally, we are lowering the rank of officer to whom the commissioners of the City of London and Metropolitan Police Forces can delegate powers to prohibit or set conditions on protests. The rank is being lowered from assistant commissioner to commander. That is very significant in London, because of the extent of the activity that we have seen there. It will bring London forces into line with forces across England, Wales and Scotland, whose chief officers can already delegate their powers to the commander-equivalent rank of assistant chief constable.

It is not only criminals who have rights. The public need Parliament to put the law-abiding majority first, and that means backing the Bill, which will enable that law-abiding majority to go about their day-to-day business and live their lives freely.