Government attempts to clamp down on the right to protest have hit a hurdle after the House of Lords voted down a host of amendments to the controversial Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill.
The legislation has been knocking around Parliament – and been the subject of much scrutiny – for over a year. Last weekend, “Kill the Bill” rallies were held across the country, with protesters arguing that the 18 pages of amendments added by the government in November have rendered it even more authoritarian.
After a late night debate that dragged into the wee hours, peers objected to a whole series of proposals contained within it, providing a boost to critics who claim the bill “effectively criminalises protest.”
Peers voted against ministers’ plans to give the police new powers to shut down protests in England and Wales on the grounds that they are “too noisy and disruptive” as well voting against the proposal to make it an offence to interfere with the operation of key national infrastructure, such as airports, railways and newspaper printers.
The proposed stop and search powers included in the bill – which would allow police to stop and search anyone at a protest “without suspicion” – were defeated, as was the proposal to allow courts to ban people with a history of causing serious disruption from attending certain protests. Peers also rejected the government’s attempt to create a new offence of “locking on”, which would allow police to jail protestors for up to a year for attaching themselves to objects.
In addition to rejecting specific amendments, Labour peer Lord Rosser accused the government of trying to sneak through these late amendments without letting MPs scrutinise them first in the Commons, as is standard practice.
The policing bill is in large part a reaction to the mass disruption caused by eco-activists who have blocked bridges, glued themselves to roads and stopped printing presses in recent years. The backlash groups such as Extinction Rebellion and Insulate Britain have received has emboldened the government to act.
While planned changes on protest have attracted the most attention, the bill is a mammoth piece of legislation that includes many other changes to crime and justice policies in England and Wales. Other divisive proposals include lengthening the custodial sentences of teenagers and turning trespass from a civil offence into a criminal one – which critics argue is a direct attack on Roma, Gypsy and Traveller communities.
Liberal Democrat peer, Lord Paddick, who was also a deputy assistant commissioner in the Metropolitan Police, argues that the bill is filled with “draconian, anti-democratic laws, reminiscent of a Cold War eastern bloc police state.”
A number of Conservative MPs have also voiced concern that the bill could erode some of our hard-won rights and liberties. Notably, Theresa May has urged the government to rethink proposals that would undermine freedom of speech.
The House of Lords has dealt a blow to this contentious piece of legislation. But what happens next?
The bill will now return to the Commons, where the government will get another chance to table rejected proposals if they were included in the original policing bill. This applies to powers to criminalise trespass and the clamp down on “noisy protests”.
When asked this morning if this latter, ridiculed measure would be re-introduced in the Commons, Dominic Raab replied: “We’ll look very carefully at all of that but, yes, absolutely.”
A process known as “Parliamentary ping pong” will likely ensue, where the bill bounces between the Commons and the Lords until both will be forced to agree on its final form before the current parliamentary session comes to an end in late March for early April.
However, crucially, any proposals added late and rejected by the Lords today cannot be returned to the bill. This means that powers including suspicionless stop and search, criminalising interference with national infrastructure, the creation of “protest banning orders” and new “locking on” offences have all been consigned to history.
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