Policing Bill must be amended to protect the right to protest and end slippery slope towards authoritarianism
Before Christmas, under the cover of darkness, men in masks dismantled one of the last remaining monuments reminding a nation of a heinous crime committed by their own government.
The Pillar of Shame, an imposing monolith commemorating the 1984 Tiananmen Square Massacre – in which thousands of people may have lost their lives - once stood at the heart of Hong Kong’s centre of learning. All that remains now is an empty plinth.
This clandestine move was just the latest action aimed at stamping out the last vestiges of dissent from a city once vibrant with the confidence and creativity facilitated by open and democratic societies and over the past few years, an emboldened Beijing has succeeded in imposing dictatorship in the city. The brave men and women who stood up for their democratic freedoms, who took to the streets with only umbrellas to defend themselves, were met with tear gas, batons and worse.
I fear those arriving to our shores from Hong Kong may quickly recognise shadows of repression which they have just escaped
When our own government spoke out on their behalf and offered the protesters refuge from the encroaching tyranny, it made me proud to be British. Since Churchill, it has been the proud heritage of our nation and the Conservative Party, to stand up to despots and provide sanctuary to the oppressed. However, I fear those arriving to our shores from Hong Kong may quickly recognise shadows of repression which they have just escaped.
The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, currently passing through Parliament contains measures which all right-minded people can support, including tougher sentences for domestic abusers. But there are concerns that this is a smokescreen, with the Bill acting as a Trojan horse concealing some distinctly authoritarian measures.
Buried within 304 pages, there is a clause which represents a direct attack on one of the most fundamental freedoms of any democratic society, the right to peaceful protest. Clause 59 would prohibit large-scale protests from taking place in Parliament Square on the grounds that they may obstruct a vehicle accessing the parliamentary estate. Although this may help prevent disruptors chaining themselves to the gates, it will also stop moderate protesters who simply want to attend a peaceful rally from doing so legally.
Let’s be clear, the only reason we know about Beijing’s attack on democracy in Hong Kong is because the people there protested, visibly and audibly. They decried the injustice through megaphones, down cameras and in the streets, and Britain rightly offered visas to those wanting to leave. But if Clause 59 of the Policing Bill remains unamended, those arriving from Hong Kong will find themselves in a country which also limits protest.
Because it is on the doorstep of the seat of power, Parliament Square has been the chosen site for many peaceful protests by people of all political persuasions. It seems unconscionable that the UK Parliament, the mother of all parliaments, would stop listening to the arguments of peaceful demonstrators expressing their concerns within the traditional bounds of the law. Furthermore, asking already stretched frontline officers to enforce a law banning peaceful protest, is unwise and senior police have themselves spoken out against the Bill.
The government has commendably sought to address the completely inexcusable disruption caused by environmental activists, but that aim cannot justify this clause. Such measures would be like using, not a hammer, but dynamite, to crack a walnut. It is important to remember that this law will remain in place when a new government takes over. Today this law may be aimed at Insulate Britain, tomorrow it could be used in a truly sinister fashion.
It is for these reasons that I support amendment 133B to Clause 59 of the Policing Bill, which will allow the government to protect access to Parliament, while ensuring there is a legal route for protesters to continue using Parliament Square for safe, peaceful demonstrations.
It is important that the Conservative Party continues to be seen as the party of law and order, but also as the party that champions freedom of speech and expression. When the vote is held on Monday I call on all Conservative colleagues to back this amendment because when the next Hong Kong happens, when we need to stand up to authoritarians in Moscow and Beijing, what leg will we have to stand on if we have sealed ourselves off from the people we are there to represent?
John F Kennedy said, “Without debate, without criticism no administration and no country can succeed.” Britain is the great nation we are today because of the strength, ingenuity and hard work of all our citizens, even those we disagree with.
It is time for Parliament to stand up for our cherished freedoms and end this slippery slope towards authoritarianism. Despots surround themselves with yes-men and hear only what they want to. It has never ended well.
Baroness Altmann is a Conservative peer.
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