Yvette Cooper – 2022 Speech on the Public Order Bill

The speech made by Yvette Cooper, the Shadow Home Secretary, in the House of Commons on 23 May 2022.

I beg to move,

That this House declines to give a Second Reading to the Public Order Bill because, notwithstanding the importance of safeguarding vital national infrastructure alongside the right to protest peacefully, the Bill does not include provisions for cooperation between police, public and private authorities to prevent serious disruption to essential services, includes instead measures that replicate existing powers, includes powers that are too widely drawn and which erode historic freedoms of peaceful protest, ignores the need for effective use of existing powers and does not recognise emergency NHS services as vital national infrastructure.

The Minister for Crime and Policing (Kit Malthouse)

Will the right hon. Lady give way?

Yvette Cooper

Do you know what, Madam Deputy Speaker? I actually will. I was deeply disappointed that once again the Home Secretary, sadly, would not take an intervention from me. It was deeply disappointing to note how frit she seemed to be of any of the questions that I tried to raise, which, once again, would have been extremely factual. I will give therefore way to the hon. Gentleman, if he can explain why crime has gone up and prosecutions have gone down since he became Policing Minister.

Kit Malthouse

When Labour Front Benchers called for “an immediate nationwide ban” on Just Stop Oil, did they have the support of their own Back Benchers? If not, is that why the right hon. Lady has performed the most enormous reverse ferret in the amendment that she has put before the House?

Yvette Cooper

I think that there is a strong case for using injunctions to deal with the kind of disruption that we saw from Just Stop Oil, but that is not dealt with at all in the Bill, which is part of the problem with it. It does not address a great many of the problems about which the Home Secretary is supposedly concerned; instead, it will cause alternative huge and serious problems. Most significantly, it fails to deal with some of the very serious issues about which the Home Secretary should be most concerned at this moment.

This is the first of the Government’s Queen’s Speech Bills of the Session. This is the Bill to which they have chosen to give pride of place, and what does it contain? There is no action to deal with the cost of living, although inflation is hitting its highest level for decades and millions of people are going without food to get by; nor is there any action to deal with the crisis facing victims of crime. There is no victims Bill, even though 1.3 million victims of crime who have lost confidence in the criminal justice system dropped out last year, and even though crime is rising and prosecutions are falling.

Instead, what we have are rehashed measures from last year’s Bill. We have a second round of measures on public order, even though the Government had plenty of time to work out what they wanted to do in last year’s Bill; even though the Home Secretary claimed that that Bill would solve all these problems—she said then that it would

“tackle dangerous and disruptive protests”;

even though the Government have not even implemented the measures from last year’s Bill, or assessed them to see what impact they are having before coming back for more, as any sensible Government would do; even though, for seven years running, the Home Secretary and her party have been promising a victims Bill; and even though, over those seven years, support for victims has become staggeringly worse. The number of victims dropping out because they have lost confidence has doubled since that victims Bill was first promised. That is more victims being let down and more criminals being let off.

Dr Caroline Johnson

The right hon. Lady has made an assertion that the Bill does nothing to help victims or to reduce crime, but does she accept that the prevention of disruptive protests will save a lot of money in the policing budget that can be redirected into preventing crime and helping victims?

Yvette Cooper

No, I do not. I will come on to that point later, because both HMRC and, astonishingly, the Home Office itself have said that those kinds of disruption orders are in fact unworkable.

Wera Hobhouse (Bath) (LD)

In addition to what the right hon. Lady has just said, does she agree that the terrible statistics on rape convictions are exactly the reason that rape victims do not come forward, and that the Government should have done a lot more on this?

Yvette Cooper

The rape prosecution rate is one of the most shocking figures of all. For only 1.3% of reported rapes to be going to prosecution is totally shameful. The Government had the opportunity to do something about this. Right now in this House, we could have been debating proposals to provide more support for rape victims and to bring in stronger measures to ensure that police forces took action and had specialist rape investigation units in every force, not just in some, yet the Government have chosen not to do that.

Janet Daby

My right hon. Friend is making a powerful speech. Does she agree that protests are noisy, and that in this Chamber we are also noisy when we are protesting or disagreeing during a debate? When the Prime Minister enters the Chamber, Government Members cheer as though they were at a football match—

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Eleanor Laing)

Order. This should be an intervention, not a speech. The hon. Lady should not be reading an intervention. Interventions should be so short that Members do not have to read them. If she has something brief that she wants to say to the shadow Home Secretary, she may do so.

Janet Daby

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Government need to recognise that noise has a way of releasing tension so that people can get their point across and be heard and recognised?

Yvette Cooper

My hon. Friend is certainly right to suggest that it is an unwise Government who try to silence those who disagree with them; it is also an undemocratic Government who seek to do so.

Dr Julian Lewis

Will the right hon. Lady give way?

Yvette Cooper

I will in due course.

The Home Secretary said to us this afternoon:

“From day one, this Government have put the safety and the interests of the law-abiding majority first.”

She claimed that she was prosecuting more criminals, but the opposite is the case. Since she came to office in 2019, crime has gone up by 18% and prosecutions have gone down by 18%, so I have to ask her what planet she is living on. Just because she says things stridently, that does not make them true. When she wonders about being on the side of criminals, maybe she should remember that it is a Conservative Government, and a Conservative Home Secretary, who are literally letting more criminals off—literally. There are hundreds of thousands’ fewer prosecutions every single year than there were under the Labour Government. Prosecutions, cautions and community penalties are going down, even now when crime is going up, and that genuinely means that rapists, abusers, serious offenders, thieves and thugs are all less likely to be prosecuted than they were seven years ago. There is just a one in 20 chance of someone being prosecuted on this Home Secretary’s watch.

The Home Secretary said too that she would not “stand by” while antisocial behaviour caused misery for others, but she is. There are 7,000 fewer neighbourhood police than there were six years ago, and the police are failing to send officers to more than half of all reported antisocial behaviour offences. People and communities across the country are expressing serious concerns about antisocial behaviour being ignored time and again by this Home Secretary.

Jonathan Gullis rose—

Yvette Cooper

I will give way first to the right hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis), and then to the hon. Gentleman in due course.

Dr Julian Lewis

I cannot see what these general points about the record of individual Ministers have to do with the substance of the Bill. What does have to do with the substance of the Bill is the difference between the right to protest peacefully within the rules and the right to insist on repeatedly bellowing a message—on and on and on—irrespective of the fact that other people have heard it and now want to exercise their right to go about their normal life. If I had insisted on intervening on the right hon. Lady when she was not allowing me to do so, that would be the parallel with the sort of abuse these measures are designed to stamp out. I obey the rules, and so should protesters.

Yvette Cooper

I do not think this is about bellowing; I think this is about serious offences and the committing of crimes.

Jonathan Gullis

I have been listening to the right hon. Lady, but I would appreciate some clarity. Does she condemn the behaviour and actions of Insulate Britain, Extinction Rebellion and Just Stop Oil?

Yvette Cooper

I was going to come on to exactly that, because Insulate Britain’s motorway protests were hugely irresponsible and, frankly, dangerous. They put lives at risk, which is why the Department for Transport was absolutely right to put an injunction in place and why the police were right to take prosecution action. Nobody has a right to put other people’s lives at risk with dangerous protests.

What is the Home Secretary offering today? She offers a Bill that targets peaceful protesters and passers-by but fails to safeguard key infrastructure and does nothing to tackle violence against women, nothing to support victims of crime and nothing to increase prosecution rates or to cut crime. This Bill fails on all counts. It will not make our national infrastructure more resilient, and it will not make it easier to prevent serious disruption by a minority of protesters. Instead, it will target peaceful protesters and passers-by who are not disrupting anything or anyone at all.

There should be shared principles throughout the House on this issue. All of us, whatever our party and whatever our political views, should believe that, in a democracy, people need the freedom to speak out against authority and to make their views heard. Yes, that includes bellowing if they feel so strongly about an issue.

We have historic freedoms and rights to speak out, to gather and to protest against the things that Governments or organisations, public or private, do that we disagree with. That goes for protesters with whom we strongly disagree as well as for protesters whose views and values we support, because that is what democracy is all about. But we should also share the view that no one has the right, no matter what they may think they are protesting about, to threaten, to harass or to intimidate others. No one has the right to protest in ways that are dangerous or risk the safety or the lives of others. Nor should they be able to cause serious disruption to essential services and vital infrastructure on which all of us in society depend.

That is why Labour has long defended the rights to speak out, to protest, to be heard and to argue for change, and it is why we called for greater protection for women and staff from intimidatory protests outside abortion clinics. It is why we called for greater protection from harassment and threats outside schools and vaccine clinics after the threatening antivax protests. It is why we made common-sense proposals to give local authorities the powers to act which the Government initially voted against. It is why we condemned the highly irresponsible protests on motorways because, whatever we think about the cause pursued by Insulate Britain or any other organisation, no one should put lives at risk like that, which is why we supported stronger sentences for those wilfully obstructing major roads. It is also why we criticised those involved in Just Stop Oil for causing serious damage and trying to disrupt supplies to petrol stations, which could have stopped people getting to work or pushed up prices in the middle of a cost of living crisis. Those protests were not just against the law, but counterproductive; at a time when they should have been trying to persuade people, they alienated people instead. That is why we called for national action to ensure that speedy injunctions were in place to prevent serious disruption.

Several hon. Members rose—

Yvette Cooper

I will first give way to the hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire (Richard Fuller), next to my right hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) and then come back to the right hon. Member for New Forest East.

Richard Fuller

I was following the right hon. Lady’s argument until this last piece, where she outlined a series of cases—political issues—that the Labour party is against. I am just wondering why and how she differentiates that from the proposals in the Bill, which seem to provide the basis for her to make those moves directly.

Yvette Cooper

That is exactly the point that I am about to make, because the Bill does not address any of those points. All those cases are areas where there are existing offences, but there are and have been problems with enforcement. The Bill does not tackle that issue or solve the problem. Instead, in a whole series of areas, it makes the problem worse.

John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab)

My right hon. Friend will correct me if I am wrong, but if I have got it right, this Bill will criminalise those who are protesting against major transport infrastructure projects, so I want to stand up for the right of one of my colleagues —in fact, my neighbouring MP: the right hon. Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson)—who has committed himself to lying down in front of the bulldozer if there is an expansion of Heathrow airport and a third runway. I would not want to see him locked up—well, not for this anyway.

Yvette Cooper

My right hon. Friend makes an important point: people across the country want to be able to protest against big new projects that are planned for their area, such as major transport projects, or plans to turn a woodland into a car park or to close a library. That is why it is important to ensure that we have our historic freedoms to protest and people’s voices can be heard, and that we have the right to be protected from intimidation and harassment and we fulfil our responsibilities to keep essential services running. There should be a shared understanding across the House that there are rights to be balanced and important principles that should be respected on both sides of the House—for example, the principle that respects the historic freedom to protest, but also ensures that our essential services keep running.

Dr Julian Lewis

I thank the right hon. Lady for giving me a second bite of the cherry. I fear I have to confess that I am possibly the only Member here today who was actually arrested once—for taking part in a counter-demonstration 40 years ago, when we played the national anthem in public against a group of protesters against the Falklands taskforce, which was embarking to the south Atlantic.

The point that I am trying to get over to the right hon. Lady with the use of the words “bellowing” or indeed “incessant bellowing” is this: when the huge pro-nuclear and anti-nuclear demonstrations took place, everybody stopped and allowed each other to have their protest; and then the protest was over, and that was that. The idea that the same people could go on protesting day after day after day without being interfered with by the police, either for obstruction or causing a public nuisance, is ridiculous. What will she do to defend the right of other people to go about their normal lives once the protest has been made but the protesters will not stop?

Yvette Cooper

There are two different issues: there are issues in respect of the kinds of protests that might cause serious disruption to the vital public infrastructure that we all depend on, but there may also be protests that, to be honest, might be a bit annoying but do not actually disrupt anybody at all. In a democracy, we should recognise that even though the right hon. Gentleman and I may think that the world should move on, if people have strong views, they should be able to express them.

There should be a shared understanding across the House—

Angus Brendan MacNeil (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP)

Will the right hon. Lady give way before she moves on?

Yvette Cooper

I will give way once, but I really want to get to the detail of the issues in the Bill.

Angus Brendan MacNeil

Is there perhaps a case for introducing a retrospective clause, given the confession we just heard from the right hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis)?

Yvette Cooper

A retrospective clause might affect not only the right hon. Gentleman but the Prime Minister —not that the Prime Minister has much of a record of taking seriously offences that he has committed or their consequences.

The problem with the Bill is that not only does it not respect the principles in respect of defending historic freedoms to protest, but nor does it contain sensible measures to safeguard national infrastructure. The Bill does not recognise the powers that the police and courts already have and the need to ensure that they can be used effectively; nor does it address some of the key changes currently faced by the police and authorities. The Bill does not include an effective strategy to avoid disruption to essential services, and there is clear evidence that some of its measures just will not work. At the same time, the Bill does not safeguard historic freedoms to protest—quite the opposite: it undermines those freedoms and targets peaceful protesters and passers-by instead.

Let me look at the proposals in more detail. The police and courts already have a range of powers that they can use in the minority of cases that involve serious disruption or criminal activity. They include powers in respect of wilful obstruction of a highway; criminal damage; aggrieved trespass; public nuisance; breach of the peace; breach of conditions on processions and static protests; harassment; threatening, abusive and disorderly behaviour; trespassory assemblies; preventing others going about their lawful business; and injunctions.

If someone blocks the road outside an oil refinery, they are already covered by the offence of wilful obstruction of a highway. If someone vandalises tankers, they are already committing criminal damage, which is an offence. Indeed, that is why more than 100 people have so far been charged by Kent police and Essex police as a result of Insulate Britain offences, and why the independent report on protests by Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary and fire and rescue services recognised that there were different views, even among police officers, about whether more powers were needed.

I have heard from police officers—including the chief constables and former chief constables of forces that have dealt with protests over many years—both about problems that the Bill does not deal with at all and about their concerns about the Bill’s extension of the powers that they already have, which they say are sufficient. One officer told the inspectorate that

“the powers are sufficient; it is the ability to implement them that is the challenge due to lack of resources”.

There are challenges for the police if they deal with people who are determined to break the law repeatedly and are not deterred by the fact there are offences, but police also referred to concerns that sometimes even when offences had been committed there was no enforcement by the Crown Prosecution Service or the courts because of

“substantial backlogs in court”

and

“so much time passing since the alleged offence that the CPS deemed prosecution to be no longer in the public interest”.

The Bill addresses none of those issues. The inspectorate also raised concerns about lack of training, guidance and co-ordination among forces and authorities—issues that we raised in Parliament when we discussed this issue last year but that the Government dismissed.

We have heard from officers who have said that the most effective measures that they use in the face of potentially serious disruption and problems are injunctions, but the problem is the delays involved in public and private authorities getting injunctions in place. The advantage of injunctions is that they can be targeted at the problem. They often come with much swifter enforcement processes than individual offences, with the courts taking them seriously and escalating penalties. Not only can they act as a deterrent but, crucially, they include judicial oversight, which ensures that powers are not misused. Yet we have heard from police officers frustrated by the slow response from private and public authorities that have the ability to seek such injunctions, but instead leave the responsibility to tackle disruption to the police rather than taking greater responsibility themselves. Police chiefs, too, have been frustrated by the fragmented institutional response; there are so many different private contractors and organisations involved that no one takes responsibility.

If the Government were serious about the resilience of our vital infrastructure, they would have much more effective partnerships in place to make sure that companies act and co-operate, and that everyone understood their shared responsibilities. They would make sure that they understood the right to peaceful protest and the responsibility to safeguard essential infrastructure, and could get injunctions in place fast. They would be working to get the capacity, training and guidance in place that the police and the authorities need.

Instead of all of that—instead of those common-sense approaches—the Government have chosen to widen hugely powers on stop and search and on banning orders, which will affect both peaceful protesters and passers-by. Stop and search powers are hugely important as a way of preventing crime, but they can also be very intrusive and humiliating powers, which, if used in the wrong way, can be counterproductive and undermine legitimacy and trust in policing. Rightly, they are designed to be used to prevent the most serious crime—knife crime and drug dealing—and the police themselves have recognised serious concerns about disproportionality and about those who are black being much more likely to be stopped and searched than those who are white. Those powers should be used sensibly and not as a political football.

The police already have the power to stop and search someone who they believe has equipment that could be used for criminal damage, but the Government want to widen that to cover anything linked to a public order offence, including public nuisance and serious annoyance. We should ask the Government what that includes. They believe that noisy protests are a public nuisance, but does that include stopping and searching for a boombox or even for a tambourine? We concede that tambourines can be annoying, but could that be covered by the stop and search powers? That would allow the police to stop and search people not because they suspect them of being involved in a protest but simply because they are passing by an area where a protest is likely to be held.

What would that mean? Let us imagine that police expect an angry protest in a town centre by local residents who are furious that their local library is about to close. Those local residents’ singing and shouting would undoubtedly be a serious annoyance to those who are studying or using the library and reading quietly. Under the Government’s new rules, they could easily be covered by public order offences. In response, a local police inspector could designate the town centre a section 60 area and stop and search not only peaceful protesters but passers-by.

Let us think, too, about what that means for Parliament Square, where there are protests all the time and sometimes, people go too far and commit public order offences and the police rightly have to step in. But the offences that can be used to justify a section 60 stop and search order in this Bill are really broad and now include noisy protests that cause public nuisance and serious annoyance. I have an office that overlooks Parliament Square and I can say that there is definitely noise, loud music and serious annoyance every Wednesday before and after Prime Minister’s questions. With gritted teeth, I defend their right to be seriously annoying but the Government do not, so, again, under this Bill, a police inspector could designate Parliament Square every Wednesday and stop and search MPs, our staff and civil servants on their way to work, and also tourists and passers-by. Does the Home Secretary really think that we should all be stopped and searched every time the Prime Minister comes to Parliament? It sounds totally ludicrous, but that is what this Bill does.

The Government also want to be able to apply serious disruption prevention orders to people who have never been convicted of a crime. They want to be able to restrict where someone goes, who they meet and how they use the internet, even if they contributed only in some broad way to people causing disruption to two or more people. Again, the Government are extending powers that we would normally make available just for serious violence and terrorism to peaceful protest. Police officers themselves have said that this is,

“a severe restriction on a person’s rights to protest and in reality, is unworkable”.

[Interruption.] The Minister for Crime and Policing says that they have not, but that is what it says in the inspectorate’s report.

The inspectorate also said, that it agreed with the view shared by many senior police officers. It said that

“however many safeguards might be put in place, a banning order would completely remove an individual’s right to attend a protest. It is difficult to envisage a case where less intrusive measures could not be taken to address the risk”.

The inspectorate’s report also said:

“This proposal essentially takes away a person’s right to protest and…we believe it unlikely the measure would work as hoped.”

The Policing Minister is right: that is the view not of a police officer, but of the Home Office, which was submitted to the inspectorate.

There is an alternative approach for the Government: to work sensibly with the police, local authorities and those who run public and private infrastructure; to support the right to peaceful protest; to work together to safeguard essential infrastructure; to review the measures that they have just introduced before coming back for more; to work on training, guidance and resources that public order teams need; to work on streamlined plans for injunctions that could protect the smooth running of essential infrastructure if needed; to work in partnership with essential services such as the NHS and not just with oil and gas supplies; to accept that protests that this Government find seriously annoying are a vital part of our democracy; and, ultimately, to drop this Bill.

The Government should use this time to bring in a victims’ Bill that could increase the rape prosecution rate; that could provide more support for victims of crime; and that could take more action to get dangerous criminals behind bars or more community penalties to prevent repeat offending by first-time offenders. Instead of wasting time stopping and searching people outside a library protest, they should do something to tackle the serious antisocial behaviour and rising crime across the country; do the job of a Home Secretary instead of grandstanding and making headlines; and do the proper, practical work of keeping our communities safe.