Thank you for contacting me about the Public Order Bill and Serious Disruption Prevention Orders (SDPOs) and stop and search.
Recent protest activity from a minority of individuals utilising guerrilla tactics has caused misery to the hard-working public, disrupted businesses, interfered with emergency services, cost millions in taxpayers’ money and put lives at risk. Indeed, fuel supply has been disrupted by protesters tunnelling under oil terminals and cutting the brakes on tankers, and police officers have spent hours trying to remove individuals from some of the UK’s busiest and most dangerous motorways.
Censorship ('Buffer') Zones: Abortion Facilities
As you might be aware, MPs agreed to add Clause 9 - which introduces areas around abortion clinics and hospitals (censorship or buffer zones) where interference with, and intimidation or harassment of, women accessing or people providing abortion services would be an offence - to the Public Order Bill.
Matters related to abortion are a free vote for MPs, meaning the Government does not ask members to vote a certain way. I recognise that there are very strong views from both sides of the debate on this subject.
I voted against the zones when the matter came before the Houser in October; I judged it to be unnecessary and an excessive infringement on the right to peaceful assembly for a lawful purpose. On 7th March this year, I voted for an amendment allowing silent prayer outside abortion facilities but it was defeated.
The law already provides protection against harassment and intimidation, and the police have a range of powers to manage protests. Like all members of the public, protesters are subject to the law and suspected criminal offences must be robustly investigated and dealt with by the police.
Following allegations about the tactics of some protestors outside some abortion clinics, a review was instigated by Government in 2018. This review revealed that anti-abortion demonstrations take place outside a small number of facilities. In 2017 for example, 363 hospitals and clinics in England and Wales carried out abortions. Of those, 36 hospitals and clinics experienced anti-abortion demonstrations. With this in mind, the Government’s assessment was that introducing buffer zones would not be an appropriate response given the experiences of the majority of hospitals and clinics. As matters relating to abortion are a free vote issue, MPs nonetheless decided to add provisions for buffer zones to the Public Order Bill.
Serious Disruption Prevention Orders
Through the new Public Order Bill, the Government plans to introduce SDPOs, a new preventative court order targeting protesters who are determined to repeatedly inflict disruption on the public. This will allow courts to place prohibitions or requirements they consider necessary to prevent someone from causing serious disruption. These may include prohibiting an individual from being in a particular place, being with particular people, having particular articles in their possession, and using the internet to facilitate or encourage persons to commit a protest-related offence.
The court may also require a person subject to an SDPO to wear an electronic tag. Breach of an SDPO is a criminal offence carry ing a maximum penalty of six months’ imprisonment, an unlimited fine, or both.
I would like to reassure you that the threshold for imposing an SDPO will be suitably high. At least two of the circumstances listed in the legislation must be met for the court to be able to issue an order. Furthermore, for all the circumstances given, the relevant period for consideration of convictions or behaviour will be five years prior to the day an SDPO is imposed.
Stop and Search
The new stop and search powers contained in the Public Order Bill seek to enable the police to proactively tackle highly disruptive protest offences by searching for and seizing items which are made, adapted, or intended to be used in connection with protest-related offences. In their 2021 report on the policing of protests, His Majesty’s Inspector of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services agreed that such powers would have an operational benefit to police.
The Bill provides for both a suspicion-led power, amending section 1 of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, and a suspicion-less power. Suspicion-led stop and search is where a police officer suspects that a person is carrying an object that they intend to use in connection with a protest-related offence. When the suspicion-less stop and search power has been authorised, it will allow a constable to conduct a stop and search without the need for suspicion.
The suspicion-less stop and search power uses a similar framework to that found within section 60 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 to ensure consistency in terms of police powers and safeguards.
Racial Disparities: There has to be a balance between deploying tactics to help fight crime and ensuring no one feels unduly threatened. However, I want to be clear, no one should be targeted because of their race.
A number of improvements to stop and search data collection in the last year have also allowed for more in-depth insight and analysis. For the first time, in the year ending March 2021, the Home Office collected record-level information on stop and search, meaning a single stop and search can be followed through to the outcome, with much richer data about who was stopped and searched (for example, age, gender and ethnicity information for each record). This is part of an ongoing programme of work to improve the clarity and context of stop and search data and to better understand the disparities in stop and search rates.
I am confident these new changes to public order law will put a stop to the relentless reoffending and significant disruption caused by a selfish minority of protesters which impinge on the rights of the British public to go about their daily lives in peace.
The new Public Order Bill seeks to criminalise the protest tactic of individuals attaching themselves to others, objects or buildings to cause serious disruption. The locking on offence will carry a maximum penalty of six months’ imprisonment, an unlimited fine, or both. The maximum penalty for the offence of going equipped to lock on will be an unlimited fine.
Locking on is undoubtedly an extremely dangerous and disruptive tactic. For example, protestors locking on from great heights places at risk not only the protestor themselves, but also police removal teams. Indeed, I am pleased that the law-abiding majority recognise the necessity of bringing forward legislative measures to combat this type of protest activity. A recent YouGov poll found that close to two-thirds (63 per cent) of the public support making locking on a criminal offence. A separate survey found that 53 per cent of those asked supported tougher measures for activists blocking roads, transport and other infrastructure.
Amendment 17: Protections for Journalists
The Lords Amendment 17 sought to establish a specific safeguard for journalists and bystanders during protect in response to the unlawful arrest of LBC journalist Charlotte Lynch in 2022.
The Government is clear that the role of members of the press must be respected and that they are able to do their job freely without restriction. The Government saw this amendment as unnecessary as it is already unlawful for the police to exercise their powers on journalists, or any person, where there is no legitimate need to do so.
However, the Government recognised the strength expressed on this issue. As such, the Government brought an amendment which retains the sentiment of the original measure, but ensures it does not undermine the legitimate use of police powers of arrest and to maintain public order and public safety.
Thank you again for taking the time to contact me.
Craig Whittaker MP