Sarah Jones – 2022 Speech on the Public Order Bill

The speech made by Sarah Jones, the Labour MP for Croydon Central, in the House of Commons on 23 May 2022.

It is a pleasure to follow all the contributions that have been made today.

As you know, Madam Deputy Speaker, and as many of my hon. Friends have said, we were disappointed with this Queen’s Speech. It was a missed opportunity to tackle the cost of living crisis, to tackle climate change and to attack the very real problems of crime. The long-awaited victims Bill has yet to make its way to the Chamber but, if the Government were serious about governing in the interests of the people, that Bill might have been at the top of their agenda. There was nothing in the Queen’s Speech to turn around the collapse in prosecutions or the rise in crime, nothing to tackle violence against women and girls, and nothing to prevent neighbourhood crime.

This is a Government with no guiding principle, searching for anything to show a sense of purpose where there is none. What are this Government for? What good have the last 12 years brought us? That is a question for another time, but the hotch-potch of Bills in this Queen’s Speech tells its own story.

The Public Order Bill largely rehashes what we saw in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022, which—as my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry South (Zarah Sultana) and others have pointed out—was rejected by the other place. Moreover, it arrives before the protest clauses in that Act have come into effect, which in itself seems slightly peculiar. Perhaps introducing the statutory instruments to put those clauses into law would have made more sense, but I am not sure that sense is a guiding principle of this Government.

The problem that the Bill seeks to solve is the need to ensure that vital public infrastructure is not seriously disrupted to the detriment of the community and our national life, while also ensuring that the rights of free speech and public protest are protected. The Opposition believe that it manages to deliver neither of those things. A starting point must be to ask: what are the basics that the police need to equip them with the tools that they need to manage protests in the minority of cases that lead to lawlessness or violence? Let me tell the House about the basic pillars.

Paul Bristow

Will the hon. Lady give way?

Hon. Members

No! Keep going.

Sarah Jones

I hear heckling. I will keep going for a minute. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will listen to my pillars, and then see if he still wants to intervene.

First, we need the police numbers to be able to deal with protests. The policy of the Conservative party, which was to cut more than 20,000 officers, thousands more police community support officers and thousands of police staff, did precisely the opposite. Specifically, there are not enough protester removal teams across the country, as the inspectorate pointed out in its report on policing protests. Why not do something about that? Secondly—this too was highlighted in the report—the police across the board need effective training in the law and in policing protests so that they can use existing legislative processes. The inspectorate said:

“Non-specialist officers receive limited training in protest policing.”

According to the Police Foundation, over the seven years up to 2017-18, 33 forces reduced their budgeted spending on training in real terms by a greater percentage than their overall reduction in spending. Forty per cent. of police officers say that they did not receive the necessary training to do their job. Why not do something about that?

Thirdly, we need to give the specialist teams the tools that they need to be effective at prevention and de-escalation. I recently visited the brilliant mounted police branch team in the Met. The mounted police are an important part of the policing of protests and other events such as football matches, but they too have been cut across the country, not just in the Met. Why not do something about that?

Finally, when the police do press charges, they want to be sure that those charges will be followed through. There is no deterrent in a system that never sees cases go to court, but we are told by the police and by the inspectorate that the Crown Prosecution Service often has to drop cases because of huge court delays. Why not do something about that?

The Government have taken away the tools that the police need to manage protest. How can they claim to take this issue seriously?

Paul Bristow

I have been listening carefully to the hon. Member, and she is making an interesting speech, but would she agree with some of her own Back Benchers on this? For example, the hon. Member for Coventry South (Zarah Sultana) said that the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill would marginalise Roma and Traveller communities out of existence, and the hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Beth Winter) said that this Public Order Bill was a threat to religious gatherings. Does the hon. Member agree with those two points?

Sarah Jones

The hon. Gentleman is talking about the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022, which we on this side of the House opposed, in part because of its punitive measures against the Traveller community—so absolutely, yes.

We think that this Bill does not strike the right balance on protests and that it is not the most effective way to stop significant disruption of our national infrastructure. The right to protest is a fundamental right and a hard-won democratic freedom that we are deeply proud of. We will always defend the right to speak, to protest and to gather, but there is a careful balance to be struck between those rights of protest and the rights of others to go about their daily lives. Much of the debate today has been about that balance.

We heard from the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Nickie Aiken) about the disruption caused in her constituency. We heard from the hon. Member for Ashfield (Lee Anderson) about attending the miners’ strike. We heard from my right hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) about the expansion of Heathrow and the desperate plight of people in his constituency. We heard from the hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire (Richard Fuller) about how we can ensure that protest is not used as a cover for criminal activity. We heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Marsha De Cordova) about the importance of protests in the context of rights for people with disabilities. This is a genuine debate, and it is the right one to have. We know that the Prime Minister values the right to protest, as he said that he would lie down in front of the bulldozers to stop a third runway at Heathrow airport.

But some protests tip the balance in the wrong direction. Protest is not an unqualified right. Campaigners who block people from reaching relatives in hospital, marches that close down entire towns and oil protests that prevent people from crucial travel raise a valid concern, which is why we have tabled a reasoned amendment to the Bill. Our approach, rather than seeking to restrict people’s rights beyond the point of reasonableness, is to establish a swifter process for seeking an injunction to prevent disruption to vital national infrastructure. That would be a more effective prevention tool and, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) said earlier, it would have the advantage of giving judicial oversight, which would safeguard rights.

If protesters are causing a huge amount of disruption to the supply of essential goods and services such as oil or medical supplies, an injunction is more likely to prevent further disruption than more offences to criminalise the conduct after the event. Injunctions are more straightforward for the police. They have more safeguards, as they are court-granted, and they are future-proofed for when protesters change tactics. We would include emergency health services in vital national infrastructure, and we would also ensure proper training, guidance and monitoring on the response to disruptive protests, in line with the inspectorate’s recommendations, so that we could use the existing legislation effectively.

Lee Anderson

The hon. Lady is making a powerful speech and some good points. She talks passionately about protesters, and sometimes there is a case and sometimes there is not. Will she cast her mind back to the Black Lives Matter riots on Whitehall over a year ago, during lockdown when those gatherings were illegal? At least two of her own MPs were there, encouraging those yobbos who were burning flags and attacking the police. Does she agree that that behaviour by her own MPs was wrong?

Sarah Jones

I am not sure that today is the right day to be talking about people who have broken lockdown rules. Perhaps the hon. Member has not seen some of the pictures that the rest of us have been looking at this afternoon.

We believe that some of the provisions in this Bill effectively replicate laws already in place that the police can and already do use. There is already an offence of wilfully obstructing the highway. There is already an offence of criminal damage or conspiracy to cause criminal damage. There is already an offence of aggravated trespass. There is already an offence of public nuisance. More than 20 people were arrested for criminal damage and aggravated trespass at Just Stop Oil protests in Surrey. Injunctions were granted at Kingsbury oil terminal following more than 100 arrests, and there were arrests for breaching those injunctions, which are punishable by up to two years in prison—nine people were charged. When Extinction Rebellion dumped tonnes of fertiliser outside newspaper offices, five people were arrested. Earlier this year, six Extinction Rebellion activists were charged with criminal damage in Cambridge. In February this year, five Insulate Britain campaigners were jailed for breaching their injunctions. In November, we saw nine Insulate Britain activists jailed for breaching injunctions to prevent road blockades.

Removing people who are locking on can take a long time and require specialist teams, but a new offence of locking on will not make the process of removing protesters any faster. The Government should look at the HMICFRS report and focus on improving training and guidance, and they should look to injunctions.

I cannot but attack the issue of stop and search and SDPOs. This Bill gives the police wide-ranging powers to stop and search anyone in the vicinity of a protest, such as shoppers passing a protest against a library closure. The Home Secretary said the inspectorate supports these new powers, but the inspectorate’s comments were very qualified and talked of, for example, the powers’ potential “chilling effect”.

Many of my hon. and right hon. Friends talked of the serious problem of disproportionality, as did the hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire, and talked of how these powers were initially rejected by the Home Office because of their impact. Members who have spent many years campaigning on these issues, like my right hon. Friend the Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott), pointed to the risk of these deeply concerning provisions increasing disproportionality, bringing peaceful protesters unnecessarily into the criminal justice system and undermining public trust in the police who are trying to do their job.

Our national infrastructure needs protecting. We hear the anger, irritation and upset when critical appointments are missed, when children cannot get to school and when laws are broken. As our reasoned amendment makes clear, we would support some amended aspects of the Bill, but we cannot accept the Bill as it currently stands. The proposals on suspicion-less stop and search, and applying similar orders to protesters as we do to terrorists and violent criminals, are unhelpful and will not work. The police already have an array of powers to deal with such protests, and injunctions would be a better tool to use. We will not and cannot stand by as the Government try to ram through yet another unthought-through Bill in search of a purpose.

I urge all reasonable Members to support Labour’s reasoned amendment, and I urge the Government to focus instead on their woeful record on crime.