Hilary Benn - Member of Parliament for Leeds Central
Many Constituents have contacted me about the Government’s Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill.
On the right to public protest, the measures are nothing short of a curtailment of that right and their passage into law would be profoundly wrong. During the consideration of the Bill in the House of Commons on 5 July, I voted for an amendment that would have removed the measures relating to protests. Unfortunately, the Government successfully blocked the amendment by 354 to 273 votes.
We already have the Public Order Act 1986, along with other existing powers, to police protests. I think these strike a careful balance between the legitimate right to peacefully protests and the need to keep order.
As we know, protests tend to be noisy. Unbelievably, the Government’s Bill includes “serious unease” caused by “the noise generated by persons taking part” as a reason to warrant significantly expanded police-imposed conditions. The Bill also makes it an offence to breach police-imposed conditions where a person “ought to know” about them, potentially criminalising those unaware of the conditions in the first place.
The right to protest is extremely precious and one of our proudest democratic traditions. Our laws do not, and should never, seek to shield those in power from public criticism and public protest.
I also share your concerns about the Government’s proposals to create a new criminal offence of “residing on land without consent in or with a vehicle”. Under the proposals, families living on unauthorised encampments could be imprisoned for up to three months, be fined up to £2,500, or both.
Firstly, it is clear that these measures are targeted at Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities. This discrimination could potentially breach the Human Rights Act 1998 and the Equality Act 2010.
Secondly, the police have clearly said they do not require these new measures. The National Police Chiefs’ Council and the Association of Police and Crime Commissioners have said that “no new criminal trespass offence is required” and that the co-ordinated use of existing powers allows for a proportionate response. Indeed, I know that an analysis of responses to the Government’s consultation on these proposals by Friends, Families and Travellers found that 84% of the police responses did not support the criminalisation proposals.
Finally, the proposals are so loosely drafted and unclear that they not only risk discriminating against Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities, but risk criminalising rough sleepers in makeshift shelters or tents.
It is for these reasons, along with concerns around some of the Government’s other proposals, that I have now voted against the Bill twice. It is disappointing that the Government has undermined many of the good measures in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill by coupling them up with divisive measures.
As you will no doubt be aware, the Bill has recently been considered by the House of Lords where the Labour opposition and other peers inflicted a series of very significant defeats on the Government, including rejecting new and profoundly anti-democratic amendments that they sought to add to the Bill.
The House of Lords voted against the Government’s plans to:
• create a new offence of “locking on”, a tactic used by protesters to make it difficult to remove them, carrying with it a penalty of up to a year in prison
• create a new offence of obstructing the construction or maintenance of major transport works
• make it an offence for a person to interfere with the use or operation of key national infrastructure, including airports, the road network, railways and newspaper printers
• allow police officers to stop and search a person or vehicle if it was suspected an offence was planned, such as causing serious disruption or obstructing major transport works
• allow police to stop and search anyone at a protest “without suspicion”; and
• allow individuals with a history of causing serious disruption to be banned by the courts from attending certain protests.
Peers also voted for new amendments to the Bill that would:
• scrap the power to impose conditions on protest marches judged to be too noisy
• protect Parliament Square as a place to protest
• require police officers to tell the truth in public inquiries
• demand an urgent review into the prevalence of drink-spiking offences
• restrict the imposition of tougher sentences for blocking a highway to major routes and motorways (rather than all roads)
• scrap the Vagrancy Act 1824, which makes it a crime to beg as well as sleep rough; and
• make misogyny a hate crime by giving the courts the power to treat misogyny as an aggravating factor in any crime and increase sentences accordingly.
When the Bill returns to the House of Commons, we will vote to support the welcome changes that the House of Lords has made, and I hope that we can put sufficient pressure on the Government to accept them.
Thanks very much for contacting me about this extremely important Bill.
MP for Leeds Central