Unions Oppose the Government’s Public Order Bill – James Harrison, Institute of Employment Rights

Only mass resistance by trade unions, civil rights groups and wider society will make bad laws ungovernable. It’s time to use our human right to protest, or lose it. If not us, then who?”.

James Harrison, IER

By James Harrison, Institute of Employment Rights

The Governments proposed Public Order Bill is the latest attempt to introduce legislation that has previously been blocked by the House of Lords as part of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts (PCSC) Bill.

In the wake of ‘Insulate Britain’ protests where campaigners were blocking roads and gluing themselves to the road to resist the PCSC Bill, the Government sought to expand the Bill to give police greater powers to respond to this kind of protest and increase the criminal sanctions. However, the House of Lords blocked this.

In response, the Government is aiming to reintroduce these measures through the Public Order Bill. This Bill would bring in three major changes to the way protests are policed in England and Wales.

  • Expanding protest related offences: the Bill would introduce four new criminal offences related to disruptive protest including “locking-on”; being equipped to “lock-on”; obstructing major transport works; and interfering with key national infrastructure.
  • Extending police stop and search powers: the Bill would provide the police with new powers to stop and search people for items related to specified protest-related offences.
  • Introducing a new preventative court order: the Bill would create Serious Disruption Prevention Orders aimed at people who repeatedly engage in disruptive protest activity. The orders would be issued with conditions to prevent individuals from being in particular places or with particular people or from participating in certain activities.

The Government have been keen to make the case that the measures in the Bill apply to a handful of extremists and will not impact peaceful protests or freedom of expression. This has been met with some scepticism by human rights organisations like Liberty, stating “Protest isn’t a gift from the State. It’s our right”.

There is significant unease amongst trade unions about the proposed legislation. Writing in the House magazine, Streatham MP Bell Riberio-Addy said:

“With the Trade Union Act 2016, the PCSC Act this year (allowing police to impose conditions on noisy pickets) and now this Bill, the Government have all but eradicated what was already a severely restricted right [to picket]”.

Lord John Hendy, Chair of the Institute of Employment Rights, said “This is another blow aimed at trade unions, the only organisations capable of fighting back against the relentless and accelerating attack on working class living standards.”

James Harrison, Deputy Director of the Institute of Employment Rights said “Many rights we enjoy today, such as female suffrage, the right to join a trade union, as well as freedom from various types of discrimination were formed through resisting the bad laws of the day. Without resisting bad laws we could be sleep walking towards a police state. Only mass resistance by trade unions, civil rights groups and wider society will make bad laws ungovernable. It’s time to use our human right to protest, or lose it. If not us, then who?”.


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Featured image: People’s Assembly demonstration in London June 26th, 2021. Credit: Labour Outlook archive.

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