Zarah Sultana – 2022 Speech on the Public Order Bill

The speech made by Zarah Sultana, the Labour MP for Coventry South, in the House of Commons on 23 May 2022.

When this Tory Government were elected in December 2019, pundits asked about their agenda. They wondered what their central driving force would be. Of course, the Government had their line: they spoke about being a “people’s Government” and about “levelling up”. Today, that shallow façade has been totally discredited, with the Government overseeing the biggest fall in living standards since records began, hitting the poorest hardest through policies such as the scrapping of the universal credit uplift and a real-terms cut to pensions and social security. This Bill demonstrates yet again what the Government are really about, because there has been a clear thread running through their legislation. It is not about “levelling up” or “building back better”, or whatever empty slogan they are using today; it is a growing and unmistakable authoritarianism. That is clearly seen in the Bill that we are debating.

Government Members might complain but look at what they are doing, from the Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Act 2021 and its attempt to effectively decriminalise torture; to the spy cops Act—the Covert Human Intelligence Sources (Criminal Conduct) Act 2021—giving state agents the licence to torture and commit sexual violence; and the Elections Act 2022, with its attack on the independence of the Electoral Commission and the attempt to rig elections, with millions of disproportionately poor and marginalised people at risk of losing their vote.

There is also the Judicial Review and Courts Act 2022, which human rights lawyers described as an “alarming” attack on our basic rights and which abolishes vital safeguards for our freedoms, and the Nationality and Borders Act 2022, which breaks Britain’s 71-year commitment to the refugee convention, deporting victims of war and torture to Rwanda.

Paul Bristow

Will the hon. Member give way?

Zarah Sultana

No. Many people have told you that, so please just stay sitting down.

The Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill, which is set for its Second Reading in the House tomorrow, has been described by one human rights organisation as an “exercise in denying justice.” [Interruption.] Stop heckling me and just listen—how about that? Thank you very much.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Rosie Winterton)

Order. It is important that hon. Members do not address one another directly in that way, but I do think that the hon. Lady has said that she is not going to take an intervention at this stage.

Zarah Sultana

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker.

We also see this in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022 and today’s Bill. The first bans “noisy” protest and risks criminalising Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities out of existence; and the Government are trying to push the second through before that Act is even put into effect, repackaging measures that have already been rejected by Members in the other place.

The Bill will introduce so-called serious disruption prevention orders, which can be used to ban individuals protesting and can even apply to those who have never, ever committed a crime. As the human rights group Liberty states, it amounts to

“a staggering escalation of the Government’s clampdown on dissent.”

It will massively extend police powers to undertake stop and search at protests, including—as many hon. Members have mentioned—without suspicion of any wrongdoing. Police officers themselves seem quite alarmed about that. As one officer says,

“a little inconvenience is more acceptable than a police state”.

As we know, black people are already 14 times more likely to be stopped and searched without reasonable grounds. We can be sure that this new power will be disproportionately used against black and other ethnic minority citizens, including with the predictable effect of deterring people from raising their voice against injustice.

It does not stop there. The Bill’s vague and ambiguous language means that anyone walking around with a bike lock, a roll of tape or any number of everyday objects could be found guilty of the new offence of an intention to lock on, and could face an unlimited fine. These are just some of the measures in the Bill that are clearly aimed at climate campaigners. No one will be happier than the fossil fuel industry and the companies that fund the Conservative party. The Government are attacking our freedoms in order to criminalise those who stand up for a liveable planet for us all.

Conservative Members like to talk about freedom and liberty and make out that they are the champions of democracy and human rights, but a Government committed to freedom do not try to let their soldiers commit torture. They do not let state agents commit sexual violence. They do not deliberately make it harder for citizens to vote. They do not deport refugees to detention camps 4,000 miles away. They do not try to privatise a broadcaster just because of its rigorous coverage. A Government committed to freedom certainly do not crack down on protest and dissent, but that is exactly what this Government are trying to do. We have a name for a Government who do those kinds of things: an authoritarian Government. That is what this Tory Government are, and we all have a duty to oppose them.