Controversial Policing Bill Passes Second Reading After Two Days Of Heated Debate
Crowds have gathered outside Parliament to protest against the Bill (Alamy)
The government's Police, Crime and Sentencing Bill passed its second reading in the Commons this evening with a majority of 96 votes.
MPs voted 359-263 in favour of the legislation. An amendment by Labour leader Keir Starmer was defeated by 359-225 votes.
Conservative MPs had already indicated they would vote for the bill at second reading today, but a number of them have said they will seek to amend it later.
While many of them were in favour of much of the legislation, they were unhappy with the sections cracking down on protest.
The wide-ranging bill has come under fire over measures included that would expand police powers in cracking down on protests following mass demonstrations by Extinction Rebellion and the Black Lives Matter movement last summer.
Violent scenes from a vigil for Sarah Everard in South London on Saturday night, in which “heavy handed” police were seen forcibly restraining women, have drawn fresh attention to the role of police in protesting.
Labour announced on Sunday that it would be opposing the legislation following the scenes, after party leader Keir Starmer had originally indicated his MPs should abstain.
A number of backbenchers spoke out during Priti Patel’s statement introducing the bill in the Commons yesterday, which made reference to Saturday night’s events, and in the subsequent debate on the bill.
Sir Charles Walker, a vocal advocate of maintaining the right to the protest – which he called a “safety valve”, said that MPs had “criminalised the freedom of protest” when the latest lockdown legislation, banning people from gathering, was introduced.
“It was this House – us – not [Metropolitan Police commissioner] Dame Cressida [Dick] or the Metropolitan police, who criminalised the freedom to protest collectively. We are up to our eyeballs in this.”
He called on the home secretary to immediately “decriminalise freedom of protest” and “let us get people back on the streets and allow them to get things off their chest again”.
Sir Graham Brady, the chair of the 1922 committee of backbench MPs, said the Commons “voted for swingeing powers to control protests for the period of the coronavirus restrictions”.
He called on Patel to ensure “the legislation we are about to pass protects that right of peaceful protest”. Brady’s comments were echoed by former minister Stephen Hammond, who said he was concerned by the language in the bill.
Fellow Conservative Fiona Bruce said the changes in the bill would “significantly lower the legal test for the police to issue conditions on protest” and could “remove the objectivity normally required for criminal prosecution”.
She added: “Without amendment, the bill could increase police apprehension of otherwise lawful speech and could have a profoundly chilling effect on free speech more widely.
"I hope that the committee and the other place will have sufficient time to carefully scrutinise this significant bill.”
Earlier today vocal backbencher Steve Baker said the bill will give “far too much power to the executive to change the law by decree if it chooses”.
In an article co-authored with the former attorney general Dominic Grieve for the Conservative Home website, Baker urged that colleagues voting for the “principle” of the bill “must make clear their intent to improve it at later stages and address the fundamental matters that go the heart of our civil liberties”.
The sections of the bill on protest have also been also criticised by senior police figures, including the Police and Crime Commissioner for Gloucestershire, Martin Surl.
”I think the debate in Parliament will begin to understand that people have that right to protest peacefully,” Surl told ITV's Good Morning Britain.
"I don't think there are any circumstances, even during Covid, where you can stifle that right to be heard."Surl said a provision should have been made in lockdown laws to allow the public to express themselves "when people feel the pressure cooker is absolutely about to explode".
"It was very difficult for people who had very strong feelings, not all protesters, people who just had to have their voice heard," he continued.
"I'm not quite sure lighting a candle online was going to take the pressure off last weekend so it boiled over on Clapham Common.”
The former chief constable of Greater Manchester Police, Sir Peter Fahy was also “very wary" of the bill going through Parliament, warning confidence in police could be eroded by the handling of protests.
"What we see is that the policing of protests has a huge impact on the longer term confidence in policing,” Fahy told Good Morning Britain.
“Whatever task-force or meetings or new strategies do that will be hugely eroded if, for instance, women lose confidence in the police because of the policing of protests.”
The chief constable of West Midlands Police, Sir David Thompson, has also called for the current restrictions on protest to be removed.
“I make no comment on the Met’s response at Clapham Common, as it is subject to review,” he wrote in a blog post responding to the fallout from the Sarah Everard vigil.
“I do however think Parliament needs to review the regulations governing public assembly under Covid regulations so they are quickly realigned with the freedoms expected in the country on protests.
“This cannot now wait until June. Much emphasis is being placed on police discretion to navigate these matters.
“I think this has been conducted by police – in the main – responsibly.
“However the law needs realigning quickly and irreversibly as we move out of the acute phase of the pandemic.”
Downing Street confirmed today that protests would be allowed in England again from 29 March when some coronavirus rules are eased.
"The stay-at-home order will lift on March 29, which means it is no longer illegal to leave your home save for the exemptions which we are all aware of,” the Prime Minister's official spokesman said.
"As you saw under Tiers 1-3 previously, protests will also be able to resume from March 29.
“However these will still be subject to the previous Covid-secure precautions we had, namely that organisers need to submit risk assessments and ensure there is appropriate social distancing."