First and foremost, it is important to note that the independent Law Commission has been calling for a reform of the law on public order for many years now. However, freedom of assembly and freedom of expression are vital rights that I wholeheartedly support, and I can reassure you that the Government is clear that the right of an individual to express their opinion and protest is a cornerstone of our democratic society.
Under no circumstances should protests become violent; clearly the rights to peaceful protest do not extend to harassment, intimidating behaviour or serious disruption to public order.
Of course, the responsibility for the maintenance of public order lies with the police. How they deploy their powers and the tactics they use is rightly an operational matter, but we must ensure that they have the right powers to manage protests appropriately.
We need to strike a balance between the rights of a protestor and those of individuals to go about their daily business. Some demonstrations have caused unjustifiable disruption and distress to other citizens for example, during the recent climate protests. The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts (PCSC) Bill aims to enhance the police’s ability to manage protests, to allow essential services to continue unabated and to ensure that the day-to-day lives of the overwhelming majority are not disrupted by a selfish minority.
The right to protest is not unqualified and cannot be at the expense of public safety. Demonstrations on roads disrupts thousands of people's journeys and endangers the lives of road users and police officers. I am aware of the increasing use of superglue by protesters, which can frustrate and delay the police response. I continue to follow this issue closely and support the efforts of the police to clear our roads and make appropriate arrests.
The guerrilla tactics we have seen in recent years cause misery to the public, cost millions in taxpayers’ money and put lives at risk. Using egregious noise not as a method of legitimately expressing themselves, but to antagonise and disrupt others from the enjoyment of their own liberties and rights is something we cannot leave unchecked. It is, therefore, right that the police should have the power to intervene in exceptional cases where the noise generated by a protest is such that it is injurious to others. Let me be clear, we are not silencing protesters or curbing freedom of expression, and the threshold for the use of these powers will be appropriately high. Police will only use it in cases where they deem it necessary and proportionate, and they will need to consider the protesters’ freedoms of expression and assembly when making use of these measures.
The measures in the PCSC Bill are not about stopping or clamping down on right to protest but ensuring the police can better manage highly disruptive protests and maintain the balance I have outlined.
It is the case that when using these powers, or existing public order powers, the police must act within the law. Importantly, the police must be able to demonstrate that their use of powers is necessary and proportionate. It is also clear that the police must act compatibly with human rights, in particular Article 10 (freedom of expression) and Article 11 (freedom of association).
I am aware that much has been said regarding the proposed public nuisance offence. As you may be aware, Clause 59 gives effect to recommendations made by the Law Commission in their July 2015 Report on 'Simplification of the Criminal Law: Public Nuisance and Outraging Public Decency'. The report stated that the common law offence of public nuisance should be replaced by a statutory offence covering any conduct which endangers the life, health, property or comfort of a section of the public or obstructs them in the exercise of their rights. You can find the Law Commission report on this issue at the following link - https://www.lawcom.gov.uk/project/simplification-of-the-criminal-law-pu…
Importantly, the new statutory offence of public nuisance will cover the same conduct as the existing common law offence of public nuisance.
I hope this response has outlined clearly why I am in favour of the changes proposed by the Government in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill relating to the management of protests.