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Labour faces anger from activists over its decision not to back a kill-switch motion in the Lords that would stop the Government from rewriting the definition of protest to further clamp down on rights of assembly.
More than 20,000 people have now signed a petition from Green Party peer Jenny Jones to ask Labour peers to back her “Fatal Motion” in the Lords next Tuesday (13th) and “defend parliamentary democracy.”
The change to the definition of disruptive protest would permit police to impose restrictions on demonstrations causing “more than minor” disruption to daily activities, including “going to and fro on the highway” – which could ban slow-walking in roads by groups like Just Stop Oil.
Jenny Jones says the attempt was already thrown out in the Public Order Act when it was going through Parliament earlier this year. But ministers are now using secondary legislation – so-called Henry VIII powers – to make the controversial change by the back door with little parliamentary scrutiny.
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In her petition, Baroness Jones writes: “The Government lost a vote in the Lords on the Public Order Bill to change the interpretation of “serious disruption” of other people’s day-to-day activities to mean “anything more than minor”. The Lords opposed this change by 254 votes to 240.
“The government is now trying to reinsert this change via secondary legislation which has less Parliamentary scrutiny and can’t be amended in any way.”
She added: “If we lose the Lords vote on this Fatal Motion on Tuesday 13th June, then it allows Ministers, for the first time ever, to overturn a parliamentary vote against a new law. It sets a precedent where a government can lose votes in Parliament, when trying to pass legislation, then simply have the same laws waved through as regulations. It undermines the whole system of parliamentary democracy and allows government by diktat.”
The Green peer called on Labour to “work with the other opposition parties to stop this legislation in its tracks.” Labour has tabled a “motion of regret”, which opposes the government proposal, but “doesn’t change anything” if passed, she added.
“The government says this new law is about Just Stop Oil but in truth it will hurt anyone who ever wants to organise a protest or assembly – anyone from Friends of the Earth to local people raising an issue outside a council meeting. It allows the police and the home office to effectively decide what is a good or bad protest,” Baroness Jones said.
Labour Reject Kill Switch
Labour frontbencher Emily Thornberry appeared to rule out backing Jones’ motion, which is now backed by the Lib Dems, saying: “Labour doesn’t vote in the House of Lords to kill a bill, that’s the Commons’ job. The constitutional position is the unelected Lords is a revising chamber only. If a precedent was set, the Tories could easily use their majority in the Lords to do the same to a Lab govt’s laws.”
Jenny Jones replied: “Dear Emily Thornberry, I hate to tell you this but it’s the Tory Govt setting the precedent, introducing something by Statutory Instrument that has already been thrown out. Gives a Minister the right to change any bill, any time. Clearer? Feel better about stopping a Tory precedent?”
A Labour Lords source confirmed to Byline Times that it would not be backing Jones’ motion. Shadow Home Affairs spokesperson Vernon Coaker’s “regret motion” will “try and get the government to reconsider their decisions.” The source added: “If it passes, the government has to respond in some way. Usually, they’ll get back with a report when they’ve got time, but sometimes the impact can be bigger.”
Labour will be enforcing a three-line whip for its own motion on Tuesday – while telling peers to abstain on Jenny Jones’ one. The Labour Lords source dismissed her efforts saying: “Smaller parties often use fatal motions to get everyone interested. It’s got some people talking on social media.” Labour says it will vote against the move in the Commons on Monday, but fears setting a precedent for Lords blocking legislation.
But Labour peer Prem Sikka rebuffed his party’s stance, replying to Thornberry: “I don’t think this is right. Parliament Acts of 1911 and 1949, which established the ultimate supremacy of the Commons, do not apply to secondary legislation. Secondly, scrutiny of Bills in the Commons is weak and therefore it is the duty of the Lords to revise and reject obnoxious bills.”
Speaking to Byline Times, the left-winger said he believed the frontbench position was wrong: “The government is not bringing this as a bill. It’s kind of a Ministerial Decree…[Thornberry’s] reading is that it will preclude the Lords from checking ministerial diktats. It is the Lord’s constitutional duty to check ministerial diktats and those pushing through laws without a decent explanation. So I think Jenny Jones is totally justified in bringing her motion.”
Journalist Peter Stefanovic branded it a “make-or-break moment for parliamentary democracy.” And Tom Brake, director of campaign group Unlock Democracy claimed the right to protest is being “whittled away”, adding: “The time to draw a line in the sand is now.”
Another opponent of the government’s move wrote on Twitter: “Labour’s refusal to back the Fatal Motion put forward by Jenny Jones to effectively stop government by ministerial decree may be more sinister than Thornberry’s justification. Could it simply be that Labour wants that power for themselves after the election?”
Voter Alan Harrison added: “If Labour peers don’t support the fatal motion brought by Jenny Jones then I’m afraid they won’t be getting my vote at the next GE, it will go to the Green Party after everything she has done to thwart these criminals in government.”
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Asked by Byline Times why the Prime Minister was pushing on with the change and ignoring Parliament, the PM’s spokesman last week: “We wouldn’t characterise it as that. It’s not appropriate that people are prevented from going about their everyday lives by these sorts of actions.
“Obviously the right to protest is fundamental and protected, but when it crosses into stopping people going about their lives, businesses trading or indeed emergency services. going about their work, it’s clearly not appropriate.”
The Government insists that the police have asked for these powers. Questioned about this, the spokesman said: “You’ll know that there have been a number of discussions with police leaders about the powers they need clarity around, and I think this is in response to that.”
There are no plans to withdraw the secondary legislation, he added.
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