Ministers creating ‘hostile environment’ for protesters, say MPs | protest

MPs and peers have accused ministers of creating a “hostile environment” for peaceful protests with its proposals for new policing powers.

The draft public order bill includes a new offense of “locking on”, which relates to demonstrators attaching themselves to something so they cannot be removed. It carries a maximum sentence of up to 51 weeks in prison.

The joint committee on human rights has said it is concerned the offense could encompass demonstrators who simply link arms with each other, and that it should be amended.

It called for key measures in the legislation to be watered down or scrapped because the laws would have a “chilling effect” on people in England and Wales seeking to exercise their legitimate democratic rights.

The committee said measures relating to the obstruction of major transport works covered actions that were not intended to cause significant disruption, while those related to interference with key national infrastructure covered those that were neither “key” nor “national”.

The proposed serious disruption prevention orders could prevent people being able to exercise their right to protest, the committee said, and represented a “disproportionate response” to any resulting disruption.

It also expressed concerns about the extension of stop and search powers, allowing police to carry out searches where there were no reasonable grounds for suspicion.

The bill was drawn up in response to what ministers say is the disruption to motorists and public transport caused by environmental groups, such as Extinction Rebellion and Insulate Britain.

The committee, however, said the proposals go too far and “risk creating a hostile environment for peaceful protesters”.

The latest measures follow on from the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022, which the committee had previously criticized for threatening the right to protest.

The acting committee chair, Joanna Cherry, said: “The law must strike a careful balance between the right to protest and the prevention of disruption to the wider population.

“This requires a nuanced approach, yet in reaction to what it perceives as overly disruptive protests the government has decided to take a blunderbuss to the problem.”

Last month, Priti Patel said of the bill: “What we have seen in recent years is a rise in criminal, disruptive and self-defeating guerrilla tactics, carried out by a selfish few in the name of protest.

“This bill backs the police to take proactive action and prevent such disruption from happening in the first place,” the home secretary added. “These measures stand up for the responsible majority and it is time that parliament got behind them.”

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