By Aaliyah Osman - Deputy Director of the Street Law Project
Britain has had a long history of protesting, and it has been a way to promote change. Dating back to 1217, landowners forced King Henry III to sign the Charter of the Forest. In the 1900s, the Suffragists protested for the right to vote, and recently, climate change and women’s safety has been at the forefront of contemporary protests. Looking back at the history of Britain, it is clear that we have always enjoyed our right to protest and have been able to exercise it to bring about change we care about. It is protected under Articles 10 and 11 in the European Convention of Human Rights. But with the Public Order Bill currently being debated in Parliament, are these rights fading, and with it, our freedom to express ourselves?
The bill is proposing to criminalise the tactics of individuals to lock themselves to objects, obstructing transport, interfering with national infrastructure, and widens the police’s power to stop and search even without a suspicion that a ‘lock on’ object is present. The justification for this bill is to stop behaviour which is distressing to the public.
Protests can be distressing and an inconvenience to the public. However, I would argue that that is the point of protesting. In order to be heard and to make a change, sometimes a drastic action is needed to get the attention of others as well as the government’s. Had this law existed when the Suffragettes were protesting, would the women have got the vote? Surely in a country where we herald the idea of having freedom of expression, it is unfair and damning to put in place a law which puts limits towards that. This bill is similar to the type you would see in Russia, not the United Kingdom. Protests have allowed powerless people to be able to feel empowered and in order for us to have a democratic society, we must allow this to continue.
Also, the wording of the new bill is vaguely defined, so this risks the overcriminalisation of peaceful protesters. The offence of ‘obstructing major transport’ could be stopping a few cars or blocking a whole motorway, and there is no clarification on what this means. This could lead to a fear of protesting and also risks more arrests whilst protesting, leading to a type of society which is intolerable to opposition or freedom of expression.
Moreover, the bill is proposing to widen the police’s stop and search powers, allowing them to stop and search those who they believe are carrying a ‘lock on’ device, but even those whom against they have no suspicion. This suspicion-less stopping and searching carries a great risk of the police misusing their powers. We already know that the police use their stop and search powers disproportionately against those who are in ethnic minorities, so the same trend may be seen when it comes to protesting. Whilst the police should have the powers to keep us safe, their power must not interfere with the freedom of expression and that too, disproportionately.
However, generally the public has been in support of the bill, with a recent YouGov poll indicating that 66% of Britons support the idea of making it a criminal offence to obstruct major transport works. This shows that the public are in support of the idea of criminalising certain behaviour which is seen as disruptive. Nevertheless, there is considerably less support for extending the police power, with only 51% of people supporting this provision. This demonstrates the fear many have with widening this power.
So, whilst the bill is not being opposed by the British public at large, there is a need to. We must protect our right to protest and if that means taking drastic action for the causes we care about, then it must be allowed to be done. Today’s climate strikes may be tomorrow’s protest for women safety, or the right to strike. We must be allowed to protest peacefully without the risk of being criminalised for taking action on the causes we care about. This benefits us all.
 https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/public-order-bill-overarching-documents/public-order-bill-factsheet  Frazer Knowles, ‘Britons broadly supportive of Public Order Bill’s measures to criminalise certain forms of protest’ <https://yougov.co.uk/topics/politics/articles-reports/2022/11/09/britons-broadly-supportive-public-order-bills-meas> accessed 7 Jan  Frazer Knowles, ‘Britons broadly supportive of Public Order Bill’s measures to criminalise certain forms of protest’ <https://yougov.co.uk/topics/politics/articles-reports/2022/11/09/britons-broadly-supportive-public-order-bills-meas> accessed 7 Jan