“It’s out of science fiction. How are they going to guess who’s going to be disruptive?” one leading campaigner asked Byline Times

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The Government will introduce Minority Report-style clampdowns on crimes before they have even been committed, in a move branded deeply “deeply unhealthy” by a prominent peer.

The Conservatives’ Public Order Bill seeks to reintroduce many key planks of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act that were thrown out by Lords last year as being detrimental to human rights of free assembly and speech.

That Bill triggered huge opposition, led by the Kill the Bill movement, which succeeded in removing bans on “locking on” to objects and other protesters, as well as glueing to roads and other restrictions.

But the Public Order Bill reintroduces these – while handing police new powers to shut down protests before any disruption has even occurred. The amendment, introduced just this week by ministers, would expand the legal definition of “serious disruption” and let police consider protests by the same group on different days or places as part of the same action.

The government’s own press release on the changes to the Public Order Bill state: “Police officers [will have] absolute clarity over when they should step in. In practice, this will mean:

  • Police will not need to wait for disruption to take place and can shut protests down before chaos erupts
  • Police will not need to treat a series of protests by the same group as standalone incidents but will be able to consider their total impact
  • Police will be able to consider long-running campaigns designed to cause repeat disruption over a period of days or weeks”

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Baroness Jenny Jones, a prominent critic of expanding police powers who was once branded a “domestic extremist” by the Met Police for her peaceful campaigning, told Byline Times the Bill will make “all of us terrorists”: “This whole thing about pre-crime is out of science fiction. How are they going to guess who’s going to be disruptive?”

Baroness Jones – who has helped coordinate previous Lords efforts to amend the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022 – added: “There’s not the same momentum against this bill. But It’s just as terrible as it was before. There are violent people out there and the police do nothing, as we’ve seen with rapists and abusers like [Met Police officer] David Carrick. 

“Yet they crack down on peaceful protesters. It looks like the government doesn’t want any sort of disagreement anywhere.”

Asked how the Government might judge if a protest was about to become disruptive, the Green Party peer said: “They might step up surveillance. That would be deeply unhealthy. You’d expect these pre-crime rules in Russia and Belarus. But really, here in Britain? We are treating people who care as terrorists.”

Cameron Ford, a spokesperson for Insulate Britain, which is one of the targets of the legislation, told Byline Times: “Things always evolve, and we don’t keep doing the same thing we did last year. It’s always cat and mouse. We’re not deterred by stronger laws.”

He added: “We carry our prison bags in case we’re arrested, and we had loads of people in prison last year. There are 13 of our colleagues there right now. If you look at previous civil resistance movements, it’s not until people are put in prison that the public starts to take notice and see the conviction. That’s the case with Insulate Britain.”

Extinction Rebellion has said it will change tack this year and avoid illegal forms of protest – instead holding more traditional rallies and marches. But Just Stop Oil and Insulate Britain – which has frequently shut down parts of the M25 and petrol forecourts – have made no such pledge.

Ford said activists were becoming “used” to anti-protest legislation: “Our bar is so low for the Conservatives now – that this drivel washes over us…We’re seeing it with the strikes. Ministers are on the back foot, they can see the public has had enough. And they are panicking.”

A spokesperson for NetPol, which monitors policing in the UK, said the Public Order Bill would allow police to ban individuals from going to protests, and some would have to sign on at police station. 

National Police Chiefs’ Council Lead for Public Order and Public Safety, Chief Constable BJ Harrington, was among several senior police leaders backing the Government’s latest amendment, saying: “We welcome the constructive conversations with government over more clearly defining serious disruption…Policing is not anti-protest, but there is a difference between protest and criminal activism.” It appeared to ignore the fact that legal, peaceful forms of protest can be made “criminal”.

It’s always cat and mouse. We’re not deterred by stronger laws”

Cameron Ford, Insulate Britain

But Jodie Beck, Policy and Campaigns Officer at Liberty, said the wider bill’s move to expand stop and search, introduce protest banning orders and a raft of new criminal offences, “strikes at the very heart of protest and could potentially criminalise anyone who takes to the streets for a cause they believe in.”

She added: “From championing refugee rights to raising the alarm on the cost-of-living crisis, striking for workers’ rights, and fighting for racial and climate justice, protest today remains a crucial way for people to hold the Government to account. We must resist this latest attack on our rights.”

Serious Disruption Prevention Orders, which will be introduced as part of the Bill, could include conditions for individuals not to go to certain protests, see certain people or even use the internet for political organising. They can also be enforced with electronic tagging. “A person wouldn’t even necessarily need to commit an offence to receive an order,” Emily Apple from NetPol said. 

And Quinn McKew, Executive Director of Article 19, which campaigns for freedom of assembly, said the Bill would have a “chilling effect” on groups facing discrimination: “The fear of arbitrary stop and search or arrest can prevent them from using their fundamental right to protest to call for change. The Public Order Bill risks setting back the UK’s human rights record by decades.”

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A key theme in Byline Times’ conversations with human rights campaigners is that the Government frequently and rightly condemns crackdowns by authoritarian regimes like Iran and China. But it will lose its ability to do so unless it starts “practising what it preaches” argues McKew. 

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said: “The right to protest is a fundamental principle of our democracy, but this is not absolute. A balance must be struck between the rights of individuals and the rights of the hard-working majority to go about their day-to-day business.

“We cannot have protests conducted by a small minority disrupting the lives of the ordinary public. It’s not acceptable and we’re going to bring it to an end.

“The police asked us for more clarity to crack down on these guerrilla tactics, and we have listened.”

If you have a political or social story that needs telling, get in touch with Josiah Mortimer confidentially by emailing josiah@bylinetimes.com.

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