Protests have been back on the rise in Britain in recent years with demonstrations against – among other things – Brexit, the Metropolitan Police, government policy on the climate crisis and the coronation of King Charles. As a result, the government has, perhaps cynically, attempted to ‘clamp down’ on public protest with the controversial Public Order Act becoming law earlier this month. So, what is it, why do so many oppose it, and how have the government defended itself?
The Public Order Act was passed by Parliament last October and became law earlier this month, after a several months long attempt by the House of Lords to block the legislation failed. The Act is intended to hand new powers to police (because if anyone needs more help, its them!) to deal with the ‘guerrilla tactics’ employed by some of the more disruptive protest groups, such as Just Stop Oil and Extinction Rebellion.
It introduces a new criminal offence for ‘locking on’ to buildings or objects, a common tactic employed by Just Stop Oil in recent months. Such actions will now result in a year long jail term or unlimited fine.
The same fate awaits those who obstruct ‘key national infrastructure’ such as railways and motorways.
The Act beefs up already controversial stop and search powers for police officers. They can now use these powers on an individual they suspect possesses an item that could be used in a “protest-related offence”.
It also adds protection for journalists covering protests, who now cannot be arrested for reporting on a protest.
Under the act the Home Secretary can bring civil action against protestors if deemed necessary.
What the critics say
Critics of the Act point to it, along with recent legislation aimed at limiting industrial action by unions such as the RMT, as a worrying and authoritarian step from a government hell-bent on kneecapping protest.
United Nations human rights chief Volker Turk said the legislation was “deeply troubling” and claimed that it imposes restrictions on freedom of expression and peaceful assembly that are “neither necessary nor proportionate”.
It has been claimed that innocent members of the public could be arrested with little to no justification and that legal protests could be unfairly curtailed.
The powers were employed for the first time before King’s coronation, with six members of the pressure group Republic arrested because the police ‘suspected’ they would attempt to disrupt the ceremony.
The group intends to take legal action against the Met Police.
What the government says
So, how have Rishi and Co. justified the Act? The government says it ‘fully supports’ the right to peaceful protest and claims the Act is necessary only to target the ‘small minority’ of non-peaceful protests.
It has insisted that the Act is not a ban on protest and will ‘only impact a small number of individuals’
They have claimed that policing Just Stop Oil has cost the taxpayer more than £14.5m and that the measures are ‘proportionate’ and comply with the European Convention on Human Rights.
What is Labour’s response to the Public Order Act?
Keir Starmer’s Labour initially voted against the Act, but more recently they have accepted it, not giving it the criticism that many believe they should be.
King Charles’ coronation was certain to strike up much reaction from protestors. Six protesters were detained, which was allowed thanks to the shiny news Public Order Act that the government was desperate to show off.
Many have opposed the introduction of the new legislation because of the authoritarian red flags all over it, including Parliament’s resident complainers, the SNP. They brought forward a motion to repeal the Public Order Act in May, but to their dismay they were brutally left hanging by the rest of the commons, losing the vote by a miserably massive margin of two hundred and twenty one.
This is worrying as the actual opposition were nowhere to be seen, with Labour telling the SNP that they ‘would not dignify the stunt’ with their support, making them sound more like Jacob Rees-Mogg and less like the people who are meant to be causing Sunak’s control freaks some issues on the topic.
Starmer has said the Public Order Act needs ‘time to bed in’, and has refused to rule out repealing it if Labour get into power in the next election.
Whilst Labour did mostly vote down the new rules when it was initially tabled last year, the feeling is that they wouldn’t scrap it if they became top dogs. Labour MP David Lammy said on his radio show that they ‘can’t go picking through all the conservative legislation and repealing it’ as it would ‘take up too much parliamentary time’.
If Starmer chose to stand up against the Act, it wouldn’t necessarily be popular among everyone, but it would show that he and his party cares about the people’s right to protest.
Pro-life movement coming to the UK?
The US has a vast array of pro-life movements who march and protest countless times. However, many might think that in the UK, there is a much weaker movement.
To some degree that is true, however, March for Life UK protests in certain areas increased by almost double from 2021 to 2022, indicating the movement has more support than many of us might think. However, the Public Order Act could jeopardise this increasing support and action as the concept of protesting could be partially muted, which could prevent the pro-life argument in the UK from taking hold.
How could the government’s attitude to strikes affect teacher pay demands?
With teachers having held strike action already across the UK over low pay and excessive workload, with the potential of more in July, Sunak and his anti-protest government will likely be reluctant to fund more teacher training – just in case the trainee teachers do actually decide to go into the profession, realise they aren’t getting paid enough, so turn around and join the picket line.
In January, Sunak defended proposed legislation that sets out “tough new laws” for a “minimum level of service” from organisations looking to strike. It would basically mean that if you are going to strike, you need a backup job ready to go, as failure to comply with your employer could get you sued by your own boss.
This could have a detrimental effect on the education system as there is already a shortage of teachers in the UK. This might have sounded like the best thing ever when you were 14, but is actually very bad, especially as the government has failed to hit their initial teacher training target for maths teachers every year for the last decade.
The Department of Education argues that this is due to an increase in existing trained maths teachers rejoining the workforce, although this was to be expected after the pandemic and ignores the issue of poor staff retention in these roles. Read more on Rishi Sunak’s plan for maths teachers here.
How will the Public Order Act affect journalists and press freedom?
Under the act, police can charge individuals with a criminal offence if they use language that is “threatening, abusive or insulting” and intended to stir up racial or religious hatred. This covers both written and spoken language, as well as online communication.
Critics worry that the act’s vague language could be interpreted too broadly, suppressing political dissent or artistic expression.
Journalists and observers under the act will be subject to the expansive stop and search powers that the act would confer on the police. Clause 11 would allow the police to stop and search individuals, even without suspicion.
Over the last year, many incidents have occurred of journalists being arrested for being at the scene and reporting protests.
For more information on this click here.
The UK Public’s opinion on protests
A recent poll by YouGov showed that there is strong support for criminalising the obstruction of major transport works with 66% in favour and 58% in favour of measures against ‘locking on’ (where protestors attach themselves to roads or methods of transport).
The demonstrators have been politically weaponised for doing something they have always been entitled in law to do until it’s increasingly undermined by Rishi Spinless Sunak and his current crop. The Conservative party has cast its out-of-touch and reactionary net and desperate for someone to blame Brits have taken the bait. Depressingly this isn’t the first time they have done so, is it?
I present to you: “Clap for carers”, “Get Brexit Done” and “Stop The Boats”. The rhetoric for protestors is similarly insidious, save the tiresome free word slogan (I guess we can thank Dominic Cummings’ dishonourable discharge for that), in fact, it’s worse: A Bill which has now been enacted into law. Read more here.
Junior Doctors’ strikes
Junior doctors are due to go on strike again in June following on from action earlier in the year over pay.
They will be walking out from Wednesday 14 June until Saturday 17 June.
This will be the third time that Junior Doctors have been on strike since the dispute with the Government began in October.
The British Medical Association (BMA) have called for these strikes after the Government offered a 5% pay rise to Junior Doctors. In their statement, they said: ” The goal of this third round of industrial action is to force the Government to put forward a credible offer.”
According to the BMA, Junior Doctors’ pay has been cut by over 25% in the years following 2008 – thirteen years of which, the Tories have been in power.
This announcement comes after the controversial Public Order Act was passed through Parliament at the start of the month, infringing on how disruptive protest is able to be.
Ministers have made it clear that they will only extend talks with Junior Doctors regarding their pay, if the strikes do not continue. As things stand, Junior Doctors can only strike up until August because of the new law surrounding protests.
‘Just stop oil’ protesting at sports events
‘Just Stop Oil’ have acted at a number of large sporting events in recent months. Most recently at the rugby Premiership Final.
One of the protesters, Dr Patrick Hart, 37, said: “I am doing this because it’s my duty as a doctor. The climate crisis is the greatest health crisis humanity has ever faced. People are dying now and more will die every day unless we stop new oil, gas, and coal.”
The match between Saracens and Sale was stopped for approximately five minutes while stewards removed them from the pitch. One steward tackled a demonstrator to the ground, for which the crowd cheered. It is amazing how quick people are to anger.
This protest took five minutes out of the match, and yet as they ran onto the pitch the protesters were met with a hounding of boos as if they would be able to stop it entirely.
The protest group has made headlines in the last few months for their increasingly frequent public demonstrations. Most notably, prior to this, supporters climbed down from the stands at Sheffield’s Crucible arena to throw orange paint over a snooker table at the World Championships in April.
The BBC’s protest ban
On top of the Public Order Act, the BBC has now acted and banned protest action from their staff.
According to the BBC’s editorial guidelines, the broadcaster’s staff, including journalists, are expected to remain impartial and neutral in their professional activities. This includes not participating in any political protests or activities, as it could be perceived as biased. And any breach of the guidelines can result in disciplinary action.
Green Party Baroness fights tories on Public order Act
One element of the Public order act remains up in the air and, whilst the government flap about trying to get it over the line, Green party Baroness Jenny Jones has her sights on taking it down.
In a press statement from the Green party, the Baroness said: “This is a make-or-break moment for parliamentary democracy. The Lords defeated the government on this issue and the Minister is now acting like a seventeenth-century monarch by using a decree to reverse that vote.”
“What is the point of Parliament if a Minister can just ignore the outcome of debates and votes by imposing draconian laws on the public?”
The issue that Baroness Jones has highlighted is an example of a not-so-subtle slice of undemocratic pie which smells suspicious and has dry flaky pastry. Nobody wants it except them and purple-faced men with anger issues who can’t stand the prospect of their car journey being delayed for a bit.
Read more here.