Whilst welcoming many measures in the Bill, Jesse Norman highlights his concerns in relation to increasing police discretionary powers in relation to noisy protests.
I want to speak in particular about the issue of noisy protest, but I should begin by saying that, as the Minister outlined very well, there is a great deal of good in the Bill, covering many different areas.
There are facts on which I think everyone in the House would agree from the off. No one can doubt that in recent years the capacity for effective protest has been dramatically enhanced by technology, and enhanced a second time through the use of social media. No one can doubt, I think, that there are irresponsible and aggressive individuals and organisations who seek to inflict the maximum interruption and difficulty on the lives of others in the causes that they promote. And no one can doubt that the public have a right to go about their business without undue impediment. I do not think that any Member would contest those points.
I thank the Minister for engaging with me on this issue and for his clarifications this evening, both on the number of protests that this measure would be likely to affect and on the possibility of a review over a suitable but, I hope, not too long period, but—in my view at least—the measure should not be on the statute book. No serious case has been made that noise is a genuine problem. The Minister has conceded, and one understands why, that the measure is not likely to be used except in the tiniest minority of cases. We therefore have to ask whether the justification for it is adequate and proportionate. The offence is still vague and poorly defined, which is never a good thing in law. The police, as has been conceded, already have significant legal powers in relation to protests, and I regret to say that, worse, in some quarters they are the subject of a degree of public mistrust, which may be increased by our adding to their discretionary powers. Furthermore, I suspect that the measure will be extremely difficult for the courts to handle and adjudicate, even it proves to be compliant with article 11 of the Human Rights Act. All those are conservative—with a small and a large “c”—concerns that people might have about the operation of the rule of law in this country.
When people in Kyiv are dying for their beliefs and for the rights of freedom of speech and of association, the timing is unfortunate. I understand the motivations, and I understand that this has been lightly and sparingly applied, but an increase in discretion to qualify rights of protest that have been fundamental to our society and democratic traditions for hundreds of years is, I think, highly regrettable.
My right hon. Friend knows that I have real concerns about the noisy protest legislation. How often does he expect it to be applied and how many past protests have been subject to something like that kind of police discretion?
Obviously, it is hard for me to predict how often these things will be used. I will come on to talk about the noise provision more specifically, but it is worth pointing out that it is not common for conditions to be placed on protest generally. The National Police Chiefs’ Council tells us that in the three months to April ’21, there were 2,500 protests, and conditions were put on them no more than a dozen times. The Metropolitan police has confirmed that in 2019—hon. Members have to remember that in London, a protest takes place pretty much every day, and sometimes several in one day—it put conditions on only 15 times and, in 2020, only six times. Admittedly, 2020 saw a suppressed number of protests because of the pandemic, but this is nevertheless rare, and the police take care in placing such conditions.
I think it would help me, and it might help others in the Chamber, if the Minister would consider putting in place a review, perhaps a year or two years into the use of this power, if the House chooses to grant it.
I am happy to commit to reviewing the offence. I would love to put a time limit on it but, as I said when I outlined the number of times conditions would be met, this measure may be used on only a very small number of occasions. We will have to consider the range of situations in which it is used, and obviously review it as we do with all public order legislation. We take very seriously the fact that protest is a fundamental building block of any liberal democracy, and now more than ever that is writ large. This is an important freedom for us in this country, and I am sure that lots of Members from all side of the House have been on protests of all kinds over the years. We must ensure that legislation moves with the times and reflects changes in technology, and that we give the police the powers they need, albeit in rare and often exceptional circumstances.