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MPs Say “Oppressive” Plans To Restrict Disruptive Protests Could Breach Human Rights Laws

MPs Say “Oppressive” Plans To Restrict Disruptive Protests Could Breach Human Rights Laws

The controversial policing bill passed its second reading in March (Alamy)

3 min read

MPs have urged the government to introduce explicit statutory protection for protests amid concerns that the upcoming Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill could breach human rights laws.

In a new report published on Tuesday, the Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR) said some of the limits on protests prescribed in the Bill were “deeply concerning” and should be scrapped. 

The wide-ranging bill has come under fire over included measures that would expand police powers to crack down on protests in the wake of mass demonstrations by Extinction Rebellion and the Black Lives Matter movement last summer. 

Plans to introduce noise “trigger” to protest legislation — which would allow police to impose restrictions on protests based on the noise they produced — were “neither necessary nor proportionate”, the report argues.

It also claimed that other proposals, such as new conditions on one-person protests and tougher penalties for those breaching protest rules, should be dropped as the government had not made a strong enough case in favour of them.

“One of our most fundamental rights is to protest. It is the essence of our democracy. To do that, we need to make ourselves heard. The Government proposals to allow police to restrict “noisy” protests are oppressive and wrong,” said Harriet Harman, chair of the JCHR. 

“The Government put forward new powers in areas where the police already have access to powers and offences which are perfectly adequate. The Government has served up confusion where clarity and precision is essential.

“Noisy protests are the exercises of the lungs of a healthy democracy. They should not be treated as an inconvenience by those in power. We are calling for the right to protest peacefully to be given explicit statutory protection.”

Under Article 10 and 11 of the Human Rights Act 1998, which incorporates the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), the rights to freedom of expression and freedom of association are protected, and any interference with non-violent protest risks undermining these rights.

“Using multiple terms that are open to wide interpretation, such as “intensity” and “serious unease”, leaves an excessive degree of judgment in the hands of a police officer,” the report read.

“It will also give rise to uncertainty for those organising and participating in demonstrations and fails to provide convincing safeguards against arbitrary or discriminatory use of these powers.”

The JCHR also highlighted the lack of data relating to the policing of protests, making it difficult to “assess the efficacy of existing laws and the need for new ones”.

The committee said that proposals for a new public nuisance defence within the bill were unnecessary, as there is “a plethora of offences already available to the police” to deal with serious behaviour. 

New legislation was needed, the report said, to protect the right to protest in law and set out “both the negative and positive obligations” of the government regarding demonstrations. 

“The right to protest is a fundamental right in a healthy democratic society. Public authorities, including the police, are under a negative obligation not to interfere with the right to protest unlawfully and a positive obligation to facilitate peaceful protest,” it read.

“Therefore, it is concerning that current rhetoric focuses on the inconvenience sometimes caused by protest rather than its value to society. This must be addressed.”

MPs voted 359-263 in favour of the legislation in March, and the Bill is currently in the committee stage.

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