Suella Braverman quietly gives herself fresh anti-protest powers
Last-minute amendment to Public Order Bill lets home secretary slap injunctions on people ‘likely’ to protest
Suella Braverman is quietly handing herself new powers to clamp down on the government’s political opponents, civil right advocates have warned.
The home secretary pushed through a last-minute amendment to a widely criticised anti-protest bill on Tuesday that would allow her to apply for injunctions against anyone she deems ‘likely’ to carry out protests that could cause ‘serious disruption’ to ‘key national infrastructure’, prevent access to ‘essential’ goods or services, or have a ‘serious adverse effect on public safety’. The proposal would also give police the power to arrest anyone they suspect to be breaching such an injunction.
Leading human rights groups say that the Public Order Bill, which passed a final vote in the Commons yesterday, would align the UK’s anti-protest laws with those in Russia and Belarus.
The bill includes new powers, such as protest banning orders, that the government was forced to exclude from its Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act (PCSC) after they were voted down in the House of Lords earlier this year. Peers could reject the measures once more when the bill progresses to the Lords in the coming weeks.
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Tom Wainwright, a barrister specialising in protest cases, told openDemocracy that Braverman’s 11th-hour addition to the bill would “put a lot of power in the hands of the home secretary to pursue an injunction if she thinks it’s ‘expedient’”.
The Garden Court Chambers counsel added: “One worry is that she’s going to read ‘expediency’ [in the wording of the bill] as: ‘Would it look good for me to be applying for an injunction?’”
Jun Pang, policy and campaigns officer at rights campaign group Liberty, told openDemocracy that the amendment “will effectively give the home secretary the power to clamp down on protests as and when the government chooses. This will have devastating consequences for dissent.”
Shell and Exxon have already successfully secured injunctions from the UK courts that, under the new bill, could lead to climate protesters being given unlimited fines or a maximum six months prison sentences if they block or damage petrol stations and other oil facilities in England and Wales.
Wainwright, who represented the Stansted 15 human rights campaigners, said the bill was “absolutely targeted” at Insulate Britain and Extinction Rebellion – an accusation that was similarly levelled at its predecessor, the policing bill that became the PCSC Act. “It’s a calculated decision based on the fact that they’ve decided that those people protesting are not going to vote for them anyway,” said Wainwright.
Other measures proposed in the bill include giving courts the power to issue Serious Disruption Prevention Orders (SDPOs), which can ban individuals from attending protests.
Amnesty International said the proposed law on SDPOs would “go further” than similar legislation in Russia, by giving courts the power to issue them without a conviction. The range of conditions that can be imposed on individuals under the orders include 24/7 GPS monitoring and restricted internet usage.
Labour MPs have raised concerns that the orders, which were previously rejected by the House of Lords for being “draconian”, could be used to prevent workers from joining picket lines. The government is currently embroiled in a months-long industrial dispute with transport workers over pay cuts and could soon face strikes by nurses and teachers.
The bill has also come under fire from anti-racist campaingers for expanding stop and search powers, despite evidence that it is ineffective and disproportionately targets ethnic minorities, particularly young Black men.
Police would be given powers to stop and search people or vehicles even if they have no “reasonable grounds” to do so, if a senior officer believes protest offences are likely to take place in an area. Currently, authorities are only supposedly allowed to carry out so-called “suspicionless” stop and search when there is an imminent threat of serious violence.
Liberty said new blanket search powers would “further entrench racism in the criminal justice system”. Black people are 40 times more likely to be stopped under stop and search powers than their white counterparts, and less than 2% of searches result in any further police action.
Other measures in the bill include a new offence that criminalises the protest tactic of “locking on” where people attach themselves to one another or an immovable object. Protesters could be jailed for six months or given an unlimited fine if by doing so they cause, or could cause, serious disruption.
Those stopped and found to have items on them – such as bike lock or superglue – which are intended to be used for a “locking on” protest could also be fined an unlimited amount.
The bill also proposes a new offence of interfering with “the use or operation of any key national infrastructure in England and Wales”, or intending to, which includes natural gas sites as well as roads, rail networks and airports. Just Stop Oil activists on Monday shut down the Dartford Crossing that takes southbound M25 traffic over the Thames, in protest against the government giving out new oil and gas licences.
The home secretary wrote in the Daily Mail on Saturday that protesters from Extinction Rebellion and Just Stop Oil are “thugs and vandals” and that the Public Order Bill “will put the safety and interests of the law-abiding majority first”.
Earlier this year, openDemocracy revealed that measures targeting Extinction Rebellion in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act were first proposed by a Tory-linked think tank financially backed by an oil company.
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