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Another set of anti-protest measures is being imposed – just a day after ex-Home Secretary Suella Braverman demanded a further crackdown on protest rights.
The measures announced by the Government include empowering the police to arrest individuals for wearing masks, banning flares and fireworks, eliminating “reasonable” justifications for obstructing roads, and handing out fines of £1,000 for those who climb on war memorials.
Home Secretary James Cleverly announced the new laws in a Daily Mail article, claiming they align with what “most people” believe to be acceptable limits on free speech.
While the changes will have been a while in the making, the timing follows former Home Secretary Suella Braverman’s Telegraph op-ed calling for ministers to get the ultimate power to ban protests altogether.
Braverman is demanding a string of new laws – stricter than those just announced by ministers – saying “our country has become unrecognisable.”
In her piece, titled “Take on hate-filled mobs, before it’s too late”, she called for Government power to ban protests outright, despite three weeks ago having attended a pro-Israel protest herself – one which could have been banned under an unsympathetic Government if her policy was implemented.
She began her call with unsubstantiated allegations that poppy sellers had been attacked at Palestine protests. UK police have previously dismissed these allegations as “misleading”, while the Royal British Legion said there was no evidence volunteers were targeted, the Guardian reported.
But the changes – which come on top of several rounds of anti-protest laws over the past few years, from the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act to the latest Public Order Act – have sparked anger from civil liberties groups and climate campaigners.
Caroline Lucas MP told Byline Times: “Not content with the raft of Orwellian laws it’s already enacted, the Government is now expanding its anti-democratic crackdown to further attack the right to peaceful protest.
“This is a Government hellbent on the erosion of our most fundamental civil liberties. The right to protest is a cornerstone of our democracy and it’s those seeking to criminalise it who are the real criminals.”
Jolyon Maugham, director of the Good Law Project, said this third major package of anti-protest measures in three years was “a dangerous and direct threat to protest.”
“They look rather like an attempt to remove it as a right. We think they might be contrary to the English common law and international law and are taking urgent legal advice on them”, he said.
Climate campaign PlanB director Tim Crosland noted that it was only two weeks ago that the UN published a damning report on the British Government’s assault on democratic rights of free speech and freedom of assembly, as reported by this outlet.
“Already the tax-payer is spending vast sums on prosecuting and imprisoning peaceful people whose only crime is to shine a spotlight on government lies and corporate greed.”
He added: “With this new Bill, the Government confirms it has no respect for the rights-based international order. It confirms it has no tolerance for democracy or dissent. All civil servants, including the police and judiciary, should be asking who they’re working for and wondering when it might catch up with them.”
A spokesperson for Just Stop Oil – which has seen hundreds of its activists arrested in recent years – said: “The most effective way to stop people protesting is to deal with the effing problems that have got people so riled up. Maybe if the government did something about the cost of living and climate crises and stopped facilitating the bombing of children, then everyone would go home and put their feet up?”
Akiko Hart, Director of civil rights group Liberty, branded the fresh clampdown “outrageous”, adding: “The Government must reverse this decision and drop these anti-protest and anti-democratic proposals.”
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Politico reports that although the ban on masks could jeopardise the liberty of protestors outside embassies – for example dissidents or exiles of foreign states – the Labour Party does not plan to stand in the way of the new crackdown. A Labour spokesperson told the outlet that the party intends to “examine the specifics.”
The Public Order Act 2023 already criminalised actions such as ‘locking on’ (e.g. to railings or even to other protesters), and gave police the ability to stop and search protesters for items such as padlocks and superglue. This led to the arrest of dozens of peaceful republican protesters during King Charles’ coronation.
The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022 also made it easier to tackle so-called “public nuisance” caused by protesters.
The Government highlights figures showing that during the most recent Just Stop Oil campaign, police figures show that 657 protesters were arrested in 2023 under the government’s Public Order Act 2023.
Incredibly, the Government’s own press release states this shows that “existing powers are effective in managing disruptive protests.”
The new measures will be introduced as amendments at report stage of the Criminal Justice Bill in the House of Commons and will apply to England and Wales.
The changes come amid reports that the European Union is planning to launch a formal complaint against the UK concerning PM Sunak’s law demanding minimum service levels during strikes, claiming it might violate the Brexit trade agreement. This agreement aims to maintain a baseline for workers’ rights and civil liberties between the EU and UK, preventing a downward spiral as states race to the bottom to compete.
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