The Guardian view on public order: criminalising protest is bad for democracy

This government’s public order bill would not be out of place in the statute books of Russia or Belarus. Yet the bill passed its second reading in parliament this week. Why does Boris Johnson criticise repressive policies in authoritarian regimes – and then emulate their tactics? One would hope he is more tolerant of dissent. Yet last year, a series of protests by Insulate Britain that blocked major roads in London led Mr Johnson’s home secretary, Priti Patel, to respond by trying to make her illiberal policing bill even more illiberal.

Peers in the upper chamber thankfully voted down the amendments. But Ms Patel’s impulse to outlaw demonstrations did not go away. The public order bill repackaged the amendments, which the Labour peer and former Liberty director Shami Chakrabarti said were “modelled on anti-terror legislation – except they’re for protest”.

Lady Chakrabarti has a point. The bill gives the police wide discretion to proscribe innocent behaviour and introduces a thoughtcrime that penalises the possession of material used in a sit-in protest. Members of the public – who may just be in the wrong place at the wrong time – face being convicted of a new offence of “going equipped for locking on”. The offensive equipment could be a tube of superglue or a bicycle lock. The proposed maximum penalty is an unlimited fine.

The bill also, sinisterly, proposes control orders for protesters, presumably to shield the public from unwanted opinions. Individuals could be banned from participating in protests if they have twice before caused “serious disruption” (without even being convicted). Last year, parliament’s joint committee on human rights pointed out that it would be hard to justify pre-emptive action on individuals who may be intending to protest because it would be almost impossible to determine whether a particular restriction is necessary, let alone proportionate.

Police will also be able to use suspicionless stop and search in almost any demonstration, flying in the face of evidence that stop and search is an overused and ineffective tool. This measure threatens to erode the trust between the police and communities that are disproportionately targeted by this tactic.

The bill is an unwarranted crackdown on political life. While new forms of protest can present police with challenges, those encountered last year are not particularly novel. In the past police have used existing powers to deal with such demonstrations. Public confidence in the police is also at its lowest in more than a decade. It is a strange time to be handing officers – with few safeguards – excessive discretion and increasing the possibility of misuse of powers.

Freedom of expression – and freedom of assembly – lie at the heart of Britain’s democracy. These liberties should be guaranteed, however inconvenient it might seem. The bill seems unlikely to be compliant with human rights law. It also risks the police becoming increasingly politicised, as protest is cast as a flashpoint rather than a democratic safety valve.

Politics has progressed because of disruptive demonstrations. Governments often need to hear what protesters have to say. People thought harder about the environment because of direct action; racism moved up the political agenda because of Black Lives Matter marches. Criminalising peaceful dissent is a threat to the right to stand up for what an individual believes in. England and Wales do not need this bill. Protests are not something outside the democratic process – they are a vital part of it.

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