I understand the concerns raised about the proposed powers in relation to public protests. 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.
I therefore welcomed the measures the Government previously brought forward to the Bill in response to the significant disruption caused by recent protest activity. Although these provisions were voted down in the House of Lords, I would like to outline my reasoning for supporting their inclusion.
Recent protests by groups including Insulate Britain have demonstrated the need to ensure that public order legislation strikes an appropriate balance between protecting the rights of protesters and those of the wider public adversely affected by protest activity. The irresponsible actions we have seen in recent months around the M25 and elsewhere have put police officers and the travelling public (and indeed the protesters themselves) at serious risk of harm, as well as bringing unacceptable disruption to those simply wanting to get to work or otherwise go about their daily lives.
Under the proposals, the act of ‘locking-on’ to cause serious disruption would constitute a criminal offence, which could see someone jailed for up to six months and faced with an unlimited fine. Blocking a motorway would also meet the same punishment. The current law for this offence sets the penalty at a maximum fine of just £1,000 and is not an adequate deterrent for organisations determined to cause widespread disruption and break the law.
Furthermore, Serious Disruption Prevention Orders were brought forward to tackle protesters who are determined to repeatedly cause disruption to the public. These would give the courts the power to impose orders on those with protest related convictions or a history of causing serious disruptions at protests in order to prevent them from continuing to commit such acts.
These measures are vital to protecting the country from the highly disruptive tactics employed by a small number of people. The rights to freedom of speech and assembly are a cornerstone of our democracy, and I will not shrink from defending them. But it is also right to stand up for the rule of law and defend the rights and freedoms of the law-abiding majority.