The UK Government’s Public Order Bill, which recently passed the House of Lords in April 2023, has raised concerns about the further encroachment on people’s rights to peaceful protest. These new laws follow the previous year’s restrictions outlined in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022, which granted vague and undefined powers to the police and government to suppress protests, even those organised by a single individual.
Even without the Public Order Bill, protests can now be silenced if they are deemed too noisy or potentially bothersome. It’s important to note that these anti-protest laws will only affect England and Wales since policing is a devolved issue, leaving Scotland and Northern Ireland unaffected.
Restrictions on Peaceful Protest
The implications of the Public Order Bill are troubling as it imposes additional restrictions on people’s rights. It lowers the threshold for defining disruptive protests, grants the police extensive new powers to prevent protests near major transportation networks, oil and gas facilities, and energy supplies.
Moreover, it criminalises the act of “locking on” and expands the use of stop and search powers during protests, including suspicion-less stop and search. Additionally, the bill introduces protest banning orders that could prevent individuals from participating in any protests at all.
The Public Order Bill Is Downright Authoritarian
These provisions in the Public Order Bill raise significant concerns. They are seen as authoritarian and disproportionate. Existing international human rights standards demand that governments avoid implementing measures that unduly restrict freedom of expression and assembly. It is widely acknowledged that protests, by their very nature, can cause disruption, and governments should refrain from enacting laws that create a “chilling effect” on people’s ability to exercise their rights.
Moreover, these measures are deemed unnecessary. The police already possess sufficient powers to manage protests safely and prevent violence or serious criminal activities. The Public Order Bill’s measures lack proportionality and necessity, putting the UK government in violation of its international obligations.
Get Ready for Overpolicing
These new powers are also likely to exacerbate racism and the overpolicing of marginalised groups. Stop and search practices have been proven counterproductive and disproportionately affect Black individuals. Institutional racism within the police and the broader criminal justice system already exists.
Black people are stopped 6 to 7 times more frequently than their white counterparts. These powers have little to no impact on crime prevention and can strain the relationship between the police and communities.
The measures outlined in the Public Order Bill, including the significant increase in stop and search powers, are expected to amplify racial discrimination by discouraging individuals from overpoliced communities from exercising their fundamental right to peaceful protest.