Published — 16 April, 2021

Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill

Thank you for contacting me about the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill.

This is a long Bill with hundreds of pages of clauses and explanatory notes. It is a wide-ranging Bill too. Among many other changes, it increases maximum sentences for assaults on emergency workers, introduces whole life sentences for the pre-meditated murder of a child, makes life sentences available for courts for those who kills others while drunk driving or racing, protects teenagers from abuse by those in authority, protects our heritage from mindless vandalism and gives greater support for victims of crime.

I was surprised that Labour and the Liberal Democrats voted against these measures. They did this because they said they could not support the small number of clauses relating to protests, clauses that cover 10 pages out of a total of 296 page Bill. The correct thing to do in those circumstances is to propose amendments removing or amending those clauses. That is standard parliamentary procedure, and there are stages in the parliamentary process designed for this to happen. They did not do so.

On protests. I support strongly the right to protest. I have both organised and participated in protests. Protests can be powerful and change attitudes and society for the better.

I also support the right of people to go about their every day lawful businesses unhindered – to shop, to get to work, to go to the hospital, to travel, to eat out, to see relatives and so on.

The specific clauses on protests are contained in part three of the bill (clauses 54 to 60). I will address each clause.

Clauses 54 to 56 and 60 would amend police powers in the Public Order Act 1986 so police can impose conditions on protests, particularly on noise, designed to cause “intimidation or harassment” or “serious unease, alarm or distress” to bystanders, serious disruption to the activities of an organisation nearby or the local community.

Clause 57 makes it an offence to block vehicle access in and out of parliament. Allowing MPs of all parties to get to parliament whenever they want to and ensuring access for the emergency services is reasonable. Clause 58 extends the controls to wherever parliament moves to during its refurbishment or if there is a fire or flood, presuming it chooses or is forced to move out. If it does not move out, this power could not be used as this clause specifies that condition as its trigger.

Clause 59 would abolish the common law offence of public nuisance and replace it with a new statutory offence of “intentionally or recklessly causing public nuisance”. It reflects nothing more than the 2015 Report of the Law Commission whose role is to update the wording of legislation that has developed over decades or centuries. The Law Commission cannot change the law; their remit is to ensure the law is fair, modern, simple and as cost effective as possible, and that is why their work is traditionally accepted in a cross party way without question.

The Bill’s explanatory notes explain the measures are necessary because recent changes in the tactics employed by certain protesters, for example gluing themselves to buildings or vehicles, blocking bridges or otherwise obstructing access to buildings and newspaper printing works, have highlighted some gaps in current legislation. The existing police powers to impose conditions on protest marches, such as start and finish times and maximum noise levels, are being extended to cover static protests.

I do not know why people would want to maintain laws which allow others to intimidate and harass bystanders or cause them serious unease or alarm. It seems odd to me to allow people to recklessly cause a public nuisance by climbing on the top of a train or gluing themselves to buildings to prevent people getting to work. Or block a road that is a main access to a hospital A&E.

When protests regularly, disproportionately and gratuitously disrupt the lives of law-abiding people who are not protesting, and not even the subject of the protest, then I think we have a responsibility to enable that person to go about their business. We also have a responsibility to enable protests to happen at the same time. This Bill achieves that, along with the many other measures to support the police and keep our country safe, and that is why I support it.