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The Public Order Bill (Bill 008 2022-23) was introduced to the House of Commons on 11 May 2022. The Bill’s second reading is scheduled for 23 May 2022.

What would the Public Order Bill do?

The Bill would bring in three major changes to the way protests are policed in England and Wales.

  • Expanding protest related offences: the Bill would introduce four new criminal offences related to disruptive protest including “locking-on”; being equipped to “lock-on”; obstructing major transport works; and interfering with key national infrastructure.
  • Extending police stop and search powers: the Bill would provide the police with new powers to stop and search people for items related to specified protest-related offences.
  • Introducing a new preventative court order: the Bill would create Serious Disruption Prevention Orders aimed at people who repeatedly engage in disruptive protest activity. The orders would be issued with conditions to prevent individuals from being in particular places or with particular people or from participating in certain activities.

Background to the Bill

A number of high-profile events at recent protests have attracted concern about the ability of police to respond to non-violent protests causing serious disruption. This has led to Government plans to reform the policing of protests.

Kit Malthouse, Minister for Crime and Policing, said the Government would make sure the police have “exactly the tools they need, from a legal and practical point of view” to respond to challenging protests.

In September and October 2021, during the passage of the Police, Crime, Sentencing, and Courts Bill (PCSC Bill), environmental campaign group Insulate Britain held a series of co-ordinated protests. The protests involved group members blocking major roads. Several protestors glued themselves to the roads to make it more difficult for police to move them.

Following these protests, in December 2021, the Government sought to further expand the PCSC Bill by introducing a range of amendments to provide the police with greater powers to respond to this kind of event and increase the criminal sanctions available.

The amendments were rejected by the House of Lords at report stage. The Government says this has left gaps in the legislative framework for policing protests. To address those gaps, it is continuing to pursue the measures by reintroducing them through the Public Order Bill. 

Reactions to the Bill

Policing stakeholders are supportive of some legislative change to policing protests, with Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services (HMICFRS) saying that “a modest reset of the scales” between the rights of protestors and the rights of others is needed. However, the Government’s approach to protest has been highly controversial and attracted strong opposition from human rights advocates and campaign groups who have been critical of the Government’s expansion of police powers and criminal sanctions.

Commentators argue the Public Order Bill will infringe on the right to engage in peaceful protest. The penalties people could face for engaging in protest-related activity have also been criticised for being too harsh, with opponents of the new proposals arguing they could draw people into the criminal justice system unnecessarily. 

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