“This continuous attempt to criminalise dissent is a threat to everyone who wants to stand up for what they believe in, and to anyone who believes in building a better society.”Bell Ribeiro-Addy MP
This article is a published version of Bell Ribeiro-Addy‘s contribution to the House of Commons debate on the second reading of the Public Order Bill held on Monday, 23rd May.
Given all the crises that we are facing in our country, it speaks volumes that the first Bill of a new Parliament is yet another piece of authoritarian anti-protest legislation. The message from this Government is clear: their top priority is making it harder to protest against the cost of living crisis, rather than helping people through it.
The Government have already introduced some of the most serious and sweeping restrictions on the right to protest with their Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022, and this Bill takes the assault on our rights one step further by reviving many of the failed measures that were rightly thrown out in the other place. Restricting protest, expanding discriminatory stop and search, introducing jail sentences and unlimited fines for demonstrating close to national infrastructure, and introducing new offences of locking on will not help my constituents to pay their bills, or, indeed, address many of the issues about which they will tend to protest.
This is yet another Bill that seeks to stop people making their voices heard, and it disadvantages our poorest and most marginalised communities. Laws are not reasonable or fair if rights are protected only for those who agree with the Government, and curtailed for those who wish to challenge the Government. I agree with the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South (Mhairi Black), who said last week that we were sleepwalking into fascism. This country’s tradition of dissent has paved the way to our rights and freedoms, and those protests are the reason why someone of my class, race and gender has the rights that I have; but this Bill contains measures that would have outlawed the protests that won votes for women and trade unions.
Given the Government’s trajectory, there is no doubt in my mind, at least, that these measures will be used against pickets in industrial disputes. According to the Bill, there will be a defence when it comes to trade disputes, but that defence will not be available to stop the new serious disruption prevention orders applying to individuals who take part in more than one protest within a five-year period, even if they have not been convicted. That obviously targets union officials who regularly attend and organise pickets. The Trade Union Act 2016, the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act and everything in between, and now this Bill, have all but eradicated what was already a severely restricted right to picket. Our unions are part of the last line of defence against this Government’s attack on working-class people, and I cannot believe that the Government would stoop so low.
It is wrong that the Bill extends stop and search powers and introduces serious disruption orders when existing stop-and-search powers are already a key component of the racially unjust criminal justice system. Marginalised communities are already disproportionately likely to face criminalisation and harassment. Just last month there was a national outcry when it emerged that a black teenager had been strip-searched by police at school, having been falsely accused of possessing cannabis. There has been a string of revelations about the racism and misogyny that still blight UK policing, clearly exemplified by the vile racism and misogyny uncovered at Charing Cross police station and the already record low confidence in policing.
I have no issue with evidence-based stop and search. If there is a reason to stop somebody, that is absolutely fine. Unfortunately the police continue, again and again, to stop and search people from certain communities. All that that does is go further down the route of making confidence in policing extremely low, which does not do anything to solve crime.
When it comes to misogyny, I think about the horrifying treatment of those who attended the vigil in my constituency last year to commemorate Sarah Everard and other women who had lost their lives to violence. That made it clear that women opposing violence against women were not safe from male violence, even from those who were tasked with protecting us from it.
The Bill targets, in particular, the activism of groups who have already been mentioned many times: groups such as Extinction Rebellion, Just Stop Oil, Insulate Britain, Kill the Bill and the Black Lives Matter movement. All those groups have used disruption to draw attention to major injustices such as the climate crisis, attacks on our civil liberties and institutional racism. Rather than taking action to address those injustices, the Government want to stop people speaking out about them. We must remember that today’s protests are signposts for tomorrow’s progress.
How does it make sense for the Government to support protests around the world while cracking down on the right to protest here? As Amnesty International has pointed out, “these authoritarian provisions…are similar to repressive policies in countries the UK regularly criticises – including” – yes – “Russia, Hong Kong, and Belarus.”
The message to the public is very clear: we must put up with it, or shut up. This continuous attempt to criminalise dissent is a threat to everyone who wants to stand up for what they believe in, and to anyone who believes in building a better society. The way in which the Government continue to push this agenda makes it clearer than ever that we must oppose this Bill today, and oppose all further attempts by them to proceed with this authoritarian way of running the country.