The government is set to introduce an amendment to the Public Order Bill, giving police greater powers to shut down protests before they cause serious disruption. Downing Street said the changes would help officers clamp down on “a disruptive minority” who use tactics like blocking roads and slow marching. But human rights group Liberty said the proposals amounted to an attack on the right to protest. The proposals seek to give police greater flexibility and clarity over when they can intervene. This means that police will not have to wait for disruption to take place to shutdown a protest, or consider each incident in isolation.
However, opposition parties and civil liberty campaigners argue that the police already have powers to deal with dangerous or highly disruptive protest and the proposed amendments are unnecessary and a threat to basic human rights. Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said the tactics of Just Stop Oil activists were wrong and “deeply arrogant” but police already had the power to take action against them. Labour peer Baroness Shami Chakrabarti said police already had adequate powers to arrest people obstructing highways and the government’s proposals gave officers “a blank cheque”.
The Just Stop Oil group described the proposal as “a sinister and authoritarian attempt to undermine the basic human rights.
The government’s proposals are likely to provoke strong opposition from some peers in the House of Lords, who have been critical of previous attempts to increase police powers to shut down protests. The Public Order Bill already includes provisions to create a new criminal offence for interfering with key national infrastructure like oil refineries and railways and for “locking on”. However, critics have warned that the government’s plans could have a chilling effect on peaceful protest and be used to prevent legitimate dissent. The right to protest is a fundamental right in any democracy, and the government must ensure that any new powers are used sparingly and only when absolutely necessary. The government must also ensure that police have adequate training and guidance on when and how to exercise these powers, and that they are subject to robust oversight and accountability. It is essential that the government listens to the concerns of civil society, opposition parties and peers, and takes into account the impact these changes could have on the ability to legitimately protest and express dissent.