The speech made by Wera Hobhouse, the Liberal Democrat MP for Bath, in the House of Commons on 23 May 2022.
We should not be fooled: the measures in this Bill are the very same as those the House of Lords overwhelmingly rejected from the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022 on the basis that they form a dangerous and blatant power grab that undermines our civil and democratic liberties. The measures include the creation of serious disruption prevention orders that could subject individuals to 24/7 GPS monitoring whether they have been convicted of a crime or not. They include new stop-and-search powers for the police despite a wealth of evidence, as we have heard, that black people are disproportionately targeted. They include a broad, potentially catch-all, new offence of
“being equipped for locking on”,
meaning that someone could face an unlimited fine for as little as carrying a bike lock.
The measures have been described as “draconian”, “authoritarian” and a
“staggering escalation of the Government’s clampdown on dissent”.
They were rightly rejected from the 2022 Act and, even though the ink is not yet dry, the Government are already trying to reintroduce powers that would not be out of place in some of the world’s most repressive regimes. Is this really the kind of country that this Conservative Government want us to be?
It goes without saying that no one should be blocking ambulances from getting where they need to go, which puts lives at risk and does nothing to build public support for a cause. However, the new laws are not about stopping people blocking roads. If the Government really cared about ambulances being delayed, they would be doing far more to tackle the ambulance crisis that is leaving people waiting hours in an emergency. The new laws are about cracking down on the right to peaceful assembly and protest. The police already have the powers they need, as we see when people are arrested for going beyond what is acceptable for a peaceful protest.
The police are not asking for these new powers; they do not even support them. When consulted, senior police officers said that the orders being proposed by this Government would be a “massive civil liberty infringement”. To make matters worse, this legislation will not even be effective. To quote Liberty,
“the Government cannot legislate people into silence”.
If peaceful protest is effectively banned, the likely consequence of this Bill will simply be to push people to seek more urgent routes to protest. All it will do is undermine confidence in our public institutions and in our police at a time when public trust in the police leadership is already fragile.
Without the right to protest, countless hard-earned freedoms would never have been won. From the decriminalisation of same-sex relationships, to employment rights, to women winning the right to vote, the right to peaceful protest has been a force for change time and again. Protest is not a gift from the state to be given and taken at will. It is a fundamental right, and it is the foundation on which any democracy stands. We Liberal Democrats will always stand up for that right.
I add my support to the efforts of the hon. Member for Ealing Central and Acton (Dr Huq) to amend the Bill to introduce buffer zones around abortion clinics. It is a clear and tightly targeted measure that would address the harassment of women accessing healthcare. More than 100,000 women in England and Wales every year have abortions at clinics that are targeted by these groups. Since I last supported this measure in July 2021, three more abortion clinics have been targeted for the first time, leaving more women open to abuse and feeling afraid.
I am honestly and genuinely perplexed by the argument about buffer zones. I agree that the harassment of women seeking those services is disgraceful and should not be allowed, but why just them? Why not hospitals in general? Why not places of worship? I understand the sensitivity in that particular situation, but why is it that we object to and are willing to restrict that particular form of protest, but not others?
I support a simple and targeted measure against protests outside clinics that harass women seeking abortion. We can talk about other measures, but it is important to protect women who are already in an extremely vulnerable position from such harassment.
Last week, “Newsnight” ran an alarming story on the difficulty that clinics and local residents face in getting councils to make use of the public spaces protection orders—legislation that Ministers say is the only option. These PSPOs create an unacceptable postcode lottery. Our colleagues in Northern Ireland and Scotland are prioritising finding a solution to this form of persistent and targeted harassment, and we cannot allow women in England and Wales to be left behind.
I will never support a Bill that goes against our fundamental civil rights and those who do so tonight should be ashamed.