Just Stop Oil activists in London, October 2022. Image: Extinction Rebellion
The government’s Public Order Bill, which has sparked concern over its crackdowns on the right to process, is back in the House of Lords, as peers deliberate final changes before it becomes law.
The bill introduces “serious disruption prevention orders” as well as new offences for locking-on and blocking national infrastructure. Campaigners have warned of a chilling effect on protest, as well as unintended consequences such as dog-walkers being inadvertently criminalised for tying up a loud dog outside a cafe.
It’s been in the headlines for over a year, and is opposed by groups including the RSPB, Oxfam, and Christian Aid. A joint letter calls on the Lords to remove the “most restrictive and chilling aspects of the legislation entirely and ensure others are compatible with human rights legislation”, saying peaceful protest is a critical part of defending nature.
It follows in the footsteps of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts (PCSC) act, which gave police the powers to restrict protests for being too noisy. In fact, a number of the measures it introduces were originally rejected by the House of Lords as part of the PCSC act.
Peers are set to vote on a number of amendments on Monday afternoon, which could change the face of the bill. But there’s some background you should know about its impact.
The Public Order Bill could cost the public as much as £17.9million over the next 10 years
A Home Office impact assessment produced in May, in which the department predicts the costs and benefits to society of the bill, forecasts the cost of implementing the Public Order Bill could reach £17.9million over 10 years.
Its “best estimate” is £8.8m, with an annual cost of £900,000.
These are mainly court costs involved with processing the people arrested under new police powers.
By contrast, there are, the Home Office said, “no monetised benefits”.
However, it said “the main benefit is improved public safety” from reducing the disruption of protests. It cites £122m as the cost added to HS2 by protests. In June, HS2 bosses told MPs this cost could rise to £200m.
“The growing trend of seriously disruptive and dangerous protest tactics are resulting in increasing costs to the public,” it said.
The report concludes the measures “achieve value for money as they are likely to meet the policy objectives of reducing and deterring future disruption and improving public safety”.
The government wants to put the burden of proof on defendants
It’s a cornerstone of the UK’s celebrated legal system: the burden of proof being on the prosecution. Innocent until proven guilty.
But MPs on the Joint Committee for Human Rights raised concerns that a number of measures in the bill reverse this, meaning someone accused of an offence will have to prove their innocence.
“By imposing an unnecessary reversal of the burden of proof they also appear to be inconsistent with the presumption of innocence and the Article 6 ECHR right to a fair trial,” the committee wrote.
The government brushed these concerns off.
“Placing the burden of proof on the prosecution would water down the ability to deal effectively with those who cause disruption by ‘locking on’. It is not unusual for the burden of proof to fall on the defendant,” it said, citing sections of the Sexual Offences Act where this was already the case.
It could result in 66 people a year being sent to prison
The Big Issue analysed the Home Office’s impact assessment, in which it estimates average sentences and total time served for each of its new measures. This found that anywhere from six to 66 people a year could end up in prison as a result of the measures in the new bill.
For example, the maximum sentence for locking on offences in the bill is six months. The Home Office estimates that people will serve half of this – three months. It estimates up to one total year of prison time will be served for these offences – so four a year. It makes similar estimates for the other new offences in the bill.
Jun Pang, policy and campaigns officer at Liberty, warned these harsher punishments could have a chilling effect on protest.
“It’s important to remember that protesters are already being handed down prison sentences under existing Public Order legislation,” Pang told the Big Issue.
“Along with increasing sentence lengths, the Public Order Bill will introduce more protest-related offences which will no doubt have a chilling effect on protest, deterring people from exercising their fundamental rights.”
This could place greater strain on courts ‘already working at the limits of their human capacity’
All the new criminal offences will mean additional court cases. Analysis of the Home Office’s impact assessment by the Big Issue found anywhere from 251 to 696 new cases could end up in court every year.
Barristers this month agreed to end a strike which began in April, having complained of a “chronically underfunded” criminal justice system.
A spokesperson for the Criminal Bar Association, whose members went on strike, told the Big Issue there was a Crown Court backlog of over 61,000 cases at the end of August, and that new cases would put a further strain on the system.
“Both magistrates’ and crown courts are already working at the limits of their human capacity as we have simply run out of sufficient numbers of criminal advocates to prosecute and defend cases, let alone provide extra part-time judicial resource so desperately in need to bolster shortfalls in adequate full-time judicial recruitment,” the spokesperson said.
The government wants police to stop protests before they’ve even happened
It is not just the powers to intervene in protests once they start. The government has argued police need to be able to stop certain protests happening.
Responding to the Joint Committee on Human Rights, the government said: “This bill is not only about responding to guerrilla style protest tactics, but also preventing them from occurring in the first place. Therefore, it is absolutely necessary that the police have stop and search powers to achieve this aim.”
This could risk violating people’s fundamental rights, said Liberty’s Pang.
“It is highly concerning for the government to be talking about stop and search to deter people from protesting. Existing stop and search powers are already used in racist ways with traumatic effects on those who experience them,” Pang told the Big Issue.
“Expanding stop and search with a view to intimidating people out of protesting is unacceptable and risks violating people’s fundamental rights. This will have disproportionate effects on marginalised communities, especially Black communities, that already experience the brunt of over-policing.”
The home secretary could be given the power to personally bring injunctions against protesters
For some background on the bill, the government tried to introduce many of its anti-protest measures as amendments to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill. But they were rejected by the House of Lords and could only come back as new legislation.
Now, the government is trying to add more measures as new amendments to this bill. Two amendments introduced for the latest stage would allow the home secretary to bring civil proceedings and apply for injunctions against protesters.
Liberty has warned these could stifle dissent. “These proposed additions will effectively give the home secretary the power to clamp down on protests as and when the government choose, with devastating consequences for dissent,” Pang said.
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