UK: A Public Order Bill that will criminalise protest

UK: A Public Order Bill that will criminalise protest - Civic Space

There were large demonstrations when the Public Order Bill’s predecessor, the ‘Policing Bill’, were announced in 2021. Photo credit: Loredana Sangiuliano/Shutterstock

ARTICLE 19 is deeply concerned about the UK government’s plans to pursue a Public Order Bill, which was outlined in this week’s Queen’s Speech. The Bill has met with fierce criticism from human rights activists and free expression advocates, who highlight the severely detrimental impact it will have on the right to protest in the United Kingdom. 

“The UK government’s decision to go ahead with the most damaging aspects of the previous ‘Policing Bill’ is a direct attack on our fundamental freedoms, and will hinder the ability for people to engage in political, democratic and community processes in a meaningful way. ARTICLE 19 calls for the Bill to be redrafted, ensuring that the right to protest is upheld according to international human rights standards,” said Quinn McKew, ARTICLE 19’s Executive Director.

ARTICLE 19, together with colleagues and partner organisations, believes the controversial measures set out in the Bill – which first appeared in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill (‘PCSC Bill’), and was defeated in the House of Lords – will illegitimately restrict people’s right to freedom of expression and protest. It will create a set of barriers and excessive measures to prevent protests from taking place. This includes plans to place restrictions on noise levels at public demonstrations and criminalises obstruction of transport works.

Further, ARTICLE 19 notes with concern that the Bill criminalises direct action and those regarded as being ‘equipped’ with an object with the intention to carry out these actions. The Bill increases sentences, and gives the police unprecedented levels of discretion through the expansion of stop and search powers and serious disruption prevention orders. It puts a disproportionate amount of power in the hands of the home secretary, who, because of the vague wording of the Bill, will be entitled to define what ‘serious disruption’ means — she will essentially be in a position to stop protests with which she doesn’t agree or finds ‘disruptive’. 

Rights groups and activists, as well as groups of lawyers and some MPs, had called on the government  to amend the most damaging parts of the draft law. These first emerged in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, known as the Policing Bill, which prompted objection from more than 350 civil society organisations, as well as former senior police officials, three UN Special Rapporteurs, and hundreds and thousands of people living in the UK.

Instead, the Bill was announced as part of the Queen’s Speech for the state opening of parliament, along with other concerning plans to replace the Human Rights Act with a Bill of Rights, the implementation of the Online Safety Bill and changes to the Officials Secrets Act.

ARTICLE 19 is also concerned about the chilling effect on minority groups and others facing discrimination on the basis of race, religious belief and other factors, who resort to protests to express dissent and call for changes. They may choose not to participate in protests or exercise their right for fear of being criminalised. We also believe that, as the UN Human Rights Committee noted in 2020, these proposed restrictions on the right to protest are a failure to respect and ensure the right of peaceful assembly, and therefore, a typical marker of repression.

“The UK government’s decision to jeopardise our fundamental freedoms is an act of hostility against the values of liberal democracy, and could have an impact on its reputation on the world stage, leaving it with very little credibility when trying to persuade other countries, especially undemocratic ones, to respect international standards on human rights,” said Quinn McKew.

ARTICLE 19 urges the UK Government to withdraw the current version of the Public Order Bill and ensure amendments are made in line with its obligations to respect the right to protest, including by allowing protests to take place without unwarranted interference.


More on protest: Why the right to protest matters