Written by:
Jun Pang

The Public Order Bill: Preventing protest

Criminal Justice
Read time:
5 minutes

The Public Order Bill: Preventing protest

The Public Order Bill, which returns to the House of Lords today for its second reading, will make it much harder for people at the sharp end of state violence – marginalised communities in particular – to protest against injustice, says Liberty’s Jun Pang.  

In a year in which many of us have been enraged by the distressing deaths of Chris Kaba and Oladeji Omishore, last Saturday's march and demands for justice by the United Friends and Families Campaign (UFFC) – which is led by bereaved families and people affected by deaths in police, prison, mental health and immigration custody since 1999 – have never been more important. But new government plans threaten to silence racialised communities most impacted by state violence and make it more dangerous for them to speak out. 

Throughout history, protests by organisations such as the UFFC have been crucial for making people’s presence felt and their voices heard. For marginalised communities in particular, protest is a vital way of forcing the state and wider society to bear witness to the devastating violence many people experience on a daily basis, and which is too often ignored, forgotten or deliberately obscured. 

Whether it is ‘locking on’ at an immigration detention centre to stop a deportation flight or setting off rape alarms to protest against institutional misogyny and racism outside a police station, the act of taking political demands directly to sites of power is an important way to expose injustice and demand change.

‘It dramatically expands police powers’

The Public Order Bill, which the government is currently rushing through parliament, threatens the right to protest of everyone in England and Wales, but poses specific risks to those who experience intersecting forms of structural oppression – including racialised and minoritised people, working class people, LGBTQ+ people, and survivors of domestic abuse and sexual violence. It dramatically expands police powers and makes it more dangerous for people already at the brunt of state violence to stand up for what they believe in. 

One of the bill’s most concerning aspects is the creation of new protest-specific stop-and-search powers. It empowers the police to stop and search people they have reasonable grounds for suspecting will commit a wide range of protest-related offences. It also creates a new suspicion-less stop-and-search power, which will enable the police to stop and search anyone in a particular area without suspicion if they think a protest-related offence might take place or that people might be carrying protest-related objects. This could include anything from a bike lock to a tube of glue to a banner. 

This is a drastic extension of existing stop-and-search powers that we already know are racist, ineffective and cause long-term physical and psychological trauma, especially to Black men and children, who are disproportionately affected. Indeed, the Independent Office for Police Conduct recently published a report with harrowing examples, including that of a Black 17-year-old who said he had been stopped and searched more than 60 times between the ages of 14 and 16, sometimes on consecutive days or even more than once in a single day. 

‘Expanding stop and search with a view to intimidating people out of protesting is unacceptable’

The harms of the Public Order Bill’s new powers are exacerbated by the fact the police are empowered to use ‘reasonable force’ to carry out stops if necessary, including using tasers, firearms, batons and handcuffs.

The Home Office itself acknowledges ‘the extension of stop and search powers and the increase in the number of criminal offences may disproportionally impact Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic people’. Yet in response to a report by the Joint Committee on Human Rights, the government said: ‘[The 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.’ 

Expanding stop and search with a view to intimidating people out of protesting is unacceptable. And yet this is what the bill does: it makes it harder for people to protest without being dragged into the criminal justice system – a risk racialised people already disproportionately face – and deters people who have legitimate concerns about the potential consequences of taking part in a protest from doing so. 

‘A potentially unlimited number of conditions and prohibitions can be attached to an order’

The bill also creates Serious Disruption Prevention Orders (SDPOs) or ‘protest banning orders’. These can be imposed on someone who has attended two protests within the past five years or who has previously committed a protest-related offence or breach of an injunction. A potentially unlimited number of conditions and prohibitions can be attached to an order, including bans on going to protests, meeting certain people at certain times, and even using the internet in certain ways. 

People with SDPOs could also be electronically monitored, probably in the form of 24/7 GPS tagging, which in criminal justice and immigration contexts has been found to have detrimental impacts on people’s mental and physical health, not to mention interfere with their right to privacy. As with other hybrid civil-criminal orders (such as Criminal Behaviour Orders), a breach of a SDPO condition or requirement is a criminal offence that could result in a maximum 51-week prison sentence, a fine, or both.

SDPOs are an incredibly intrusive measure that seek to control what certain individuals can do, who they can meet and what they can say. At their core, they are an attempt to isolate individuals and stop them from participating in the causes they believe in. 

Not only do people with SDPOs face criminal punishment for failing to comply with an order, they may also be subject to surveillance over every aspect of their lives – otherwise, it is unclear how adherence to these conditions would be monitored. This in turn could put an individual’s wider network at risk of the same state scrutiny. 

‘Direct action can often be the only tactic that cuts through’

In other words, SDPOs strike at the heart of what makes protest possible: political community. This will have a catastrophic impact on movements against state violence that are built on relationships of care, trust and a collective belief in the possibility of a better world. 

Apart from new stop-and-search powers and SDPOs, the Public Order Bill creates a slate of new protest offences, while also giving ministers new powers to apply for injunctions that can result in people being fined and arrested – effectively to create new ‘public order offences’ as and when they choose. 

In the face of overlapping crises – from the cost of living to the climate emergency – direct action can often be the only tactic that cuts through. Perhaps it is precisely for this reason that the government is trying to crack down on it.

The strength of the members of the UFFC to persevere in the face of deadly state violence should inspire us all to keep using our voices to fight for change. To do so, it is essential we protect the right to protest and oppose the Public Order Bill. 

Jun Pang is a policy and campaigns officer at Liberty, leading on its campaigns to defend the Human Rights Act and the right to protest

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