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Government wins Commons battle to reinstate protest limits despite Tory concerns

The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill contains a wide-ranging raft of measures aimed at overhauling the criminal justice system.

01 March 2022

Boris Johnson has faced criticism from a group of Tory MPs over his Government’s plans to introduce new restrictions on protests.

The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill contains a wide-ranging raft of measures aimed at overhauling the criminal justice system.

These include plans to give police in England and Wales more powers to impose conditions on non-violent protests judged to be too noisy and thereby causing “intimidation or harassment” or “serious unease, alarm or distress” to the public.

In the early hours of Tuesday, MPs voted to reinstate to the Bill the protest restrictions after they were removed by peers – at one stage with the Government’s majority narrowed to 50.

But a handful of Conservatives made clear their frustration at the proposals, warning they went too far.

The Bill previously suffered a string of defeats in the Lords as peers rejected the moves to clampdown on noisy protests.

They also ripped out a series of controversial measures designed to combat the tactics adopted by groups including Extinction Rebellion and Insulate Britain.

Jesse Norman, a Conservative former minister, said it was “unfortunate” the Government was bringing forward noise-based restrictions on protests when people in Kyiv, Ukraine, are “dying for their beliefs and for the rights of freedom of speech and of association”.

He said: “No case has been made, no serious case have been made, that this is a real and genuine problem. The minister has conceded I think and one understands why that it is not like abuse except in the tiniest minority of cases and therefore one has to ask the question, whether the justification is adequate for the measure.”

Tory former minister Steve Baker said he had “some considerable concerns” over the restrictions as he encouraged colleagues to “get in that rebel lobby” to tell the Government “actually, this is going too far on noise”.

The division list showed Mr Baker was the only Conservative MP to rebel as the noise restriction proposals were reinstated by 288 votes to 238, majority 50.

Ahead of the vote, Mr Baker said: “It’s time to say protests are … inherently noisy, they’re inherently annoying and if noise is ever used as a weapon I’m sure there are other instruments of law that can be used.”

Conservative MP Richard Fuller (North East Bedfordshire) said he has yet to see the Government “make enough concessions” over the protest proposals, adding: “I worry that at a time when Conservatives should be promoting freedom of speech, we have created a weapon for our opponents to say we oppose freedom of speech – and we shouldn’t be doing that.

“I worry that we give the impression that on this side that we think that demonstrations are OK as long as they’re nicely decorous, that they’re barely audible, that they’re easy to miss and we forget that anger and frustration are natural human emotions that find their expression in a democratic society through the ability to protest and, yes, make a noise.”

Richard FUller
Conservative MP Richard Fuller was one of those that criticised the Bill (PA)

Conservative former communities secretary Robert Jenrick suggested the measures on noise may be a “step too far”.

He added: “I won’t be voting against the Government and opposing the measure, but I do hope that the minister carries forward, or his successors carry forward, their commitment to review this in the years ahead, because I suspect this is a step too far and we are pushing up against the limits of what we as a free society should be doing, particularly in the context of what we see around the world where we want to be a shining light for liberty and freedom.”

Several opposition MPs criticised the measures, with Labour’s Lloyd Russell-Moyle (Brighton Kemptown) saying: “The Government didn’t like the Black Lives Matter protests when tens of thousands of young people went onto the streets for racial equality, they were embarrassed by the anti-Trump demonstrations during his state visit, they despised the one million people that marched to try and stop Brexit so we are here with a Bill that tries to make the snowflakes opposite feel better.

“Because that is frankly what they are – the Secretary of State is a snowflake, his backbenchers are a snowflake.”

Policing minister Kit Malthouse said protest is a qualified right and there have been in recent years “examples of wholly unacceptable forms of protest”.

He said: “The role of this House, and indeed the role of the police, is to strike a balance between competing rights. That is what we do, and that is what we are trying to do with these, in my view, modest measures that we’ve brought in.”

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