One step forward and one step back – the battle to save democracy is far from over

Photo by Ann Marie Dick

The mammoth Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill(which includes such petty acts of spite and vengeance as proposing up to ten years’ incarceration for damaging a statue and the granting of police powers to seize Gypsy and Traveller homes) has been approved in the Commons before being passed for final approval in the Lords; except that the second chamber was seeing a rather different version from that voted on by MPs. Anthea Simmons explains.

It was a real and much-needed tonic to watch proceedings in the Lords on the evening of 17 January as they debated and defeated all the nasty amendments Patel had thought she could smuggle through at the last minute and without the scrutiny of parliament.

One by one, the measures were skewered by angry, defiant and justifiably outraged peers and then clinically, comprehensively voted down using that chamber’s much faster electronic voting system. Because the amendments had been sneakily added after the Commons’ stage, once defeated they cannot be reinstated. Not in that bill, anyway. There is dark talk of Patel, having been thwarted trying to draw up a mini bill to get them back on the statute book. Just let her try!

Green peers Jenny Jones and Natalie Bennett had played a blinder getting the issues up front and centre with the Labour lords and mobilising campaign groups to make a noise. The speeches from ‘our side’ were, frankly, fantastic. Pithy and poignant, especially on the ludicrous move to give the Police the power to criminalise ‘noisy’ protests.

Here are some cracking quotes that I scribbled down as I watched (note that many came from Conservative peers):

Lord Coaker (Labour): “Has democracy collapsed in the face of noisy protest? No!”

Lord Hain (Labour): “This bill is the biggest threat to lawful dissent and would have stopped the suffragettes, the battle of Cable Street against fascism; it would have thwarted anti-apartheid demos and prevented the anti-nazi league protests that curbed the National Front and, later, the BNP. If Boris Johnson and Priti Patel want to be the wrong side of history, then this bill is the way to do it.”

Lord Deben (Conservative) “I want to be able to protest about Europe and climate change. Dissent and protest are essential parts of any democracy. This bill goes too far.”

The Bishop of Leeds “If the noise is significant it is because the cause is significant.”

Lord Dobbs (Conservative): “The people who drafted this Bill have clearly never been on a demo. Without noisy demos, some changes would not happen. Government is trampling over democracy.”

Lord Cormack (Conservative) “Really, how stupid can you get?”

Bishop of Bristol: “The powerful have no need to demonstrate…protest is for those whose voices would otherwise not be heard.”

Not all the words were wise, though. Baroness Stowell (Conservative) could not seem to get her head round the difference between a physical obstruction and a noise, though she was clearly trying to whip up anti-XR (Extinction Rebellion) feeling.

The thing about democracy and protest is that you can, at times, find yourself marching alongside the most unlikely people. Last night, the right to noisy protest was also passionately defended by none other than Brexit-loving crossbench peers like Kate Hoey and Claire Fox. The latter went on to deliver a sharp slap to Priti Patel and to Grant Shapps (Transport Minister) as he desperately tried to drag a smidgen of political capital out of the comprehensive defeat (accusing Labour of supporting actions to stop people getting to work or hospital), having failed to spot how many of his own party had also seen fit to deliver a kicking to the Bill:

Claire Fox@Fox_ClaireThis is NOT what happened. The amendments would be used against us all, much more a power grab post-Covid laws of giving all power to state to decide when, where, who can protest, were completely disportionate & ignore fact already laws that can be used but police don’t use them

The 14 defeats (14!)

  1. Labour-led amendment into ‘spiking’. Priti Patel, the home secretary, to “establish a review into the prevalence of, and the response of the criminal justice system to, the offence of administering a substance with intent” – often known as spiking. 237 for, 190 against.
  2. The so-called ‘Hillsborough amendment’ – a duty of candour to be placed on the police; based on a recommendation by Bishop James Jones in his 2017 report on the disaster. “I call for the establishment of a ‘duty of candour’ for police officers … which addresses the unacceptable behaviour of police officers – serving or retired – who fail to cooperate fully with investigations into alleged criminal offences or misconduct.” 252 for vs 179 against
  3. Lords’ amendment to require police forces to record data on crimes motivated by hostility towards a victim’s sex or gender and courts to take this hostility into account as an aggravating factor. 242 in favour, 185 against
  4. Under the section of the bill on public order, protests could have been restricted if they caused “serious disruption” to an organisation or individual, and led to an individual suffering “serious unease, alarm or distress”. This section was removed by peers who voted 261 to 166 in favour of scrapping it.
  5. Lords voted 238 to 171 against making it a crime for someone to obstruct a vehicle of any description making an entrance or exit in the Palace of Westminster controlled area.
  6. The obstruction rule was to be extended to cover the obstruction of any vehicle around the parliamentary estate…making most marches and protests impossible as there are, inevitably, occasions where traffic will be stopped. The Lords squashed this, pointing out that the Police can still move people on if they are obstructing vehicles. No need for criminalisation. 236 vs 158.
  7. The new offence of ‘locking on’ was rejected by 216 to 163. The tactic inherited from the Suffragettes will not be criminalised.
  8. The bill wanted to make it illegal to obstruct a ‘highway’. The Lords said that was too broad and narrowed it down in their amendment to the ‘strategic road network’ (motorways and major A roads). 216 opposed, 160 in favour
  9. A new crime of obstructing the construction or maintenance of major transport works was rejected by 280 votes to 154
  10. The new offence of ‘interfering with key national infrastructure’ was also rejected. This would have made it illegal to interfere with infrastructure relating to road transport, rail, air transport, harbours, downstream oil or newspaper printing. 198 vs 152 said no to this protection for Rupert Murdoch.
  11. Peers kicked out moves to allow the Police to stop and search people or vehicles if they ‘suspected’ they might be involved in activity “causing serious disruption” or “public nuisance”, obstructing major transport works, interfering with “key national infrastructure” or “locking on”.
  12. They also voted 212 against, 128 for a new amendment that allowed a senior police officer in a specific area for a specific period of time to stop and search a person or a vehicle for anything which might be used to commit certain listed offences even if they had no suspicion. This could have amounted to intimidation of protestors on their way to a rally or demo.
  13. They rejected Patel’s nasty plans for Serious Disruption Prevention Orders (SDPOs) by 199 to 124. SDPOs “can be imposed on a person who has committed two protest-related offences or who has, on at least two occasions, committed protest-related breaches of injunctions or caused or contributed to the commission of such offences or breaches or to activity related to a protest that resulted in serious disruption to two or more individuals or to an organisation” Plenty of people would go on more than one demo or march…this was an attempt to nail the most committed and deny them the right to continue their protest.
  14. Peers voted to repeal the Vagrancy Act of 1824, which made rough sleeping and begging illegal. The amendment also sought to “establish that begging or sleeping rough is not itself criminal”, adding that it would “require officers to balance protection of the community with sensitivity to the problems that cause people to engage in begging or sleeping rough”. “[It would] ensure that general public order enforcement powers should not in general be used in relation to people sleeping rough, and should be used in relation to people begging only where no other approach is reasonably available.”

This wholesale humiiation got right up Patel’s nose and, like Raab, she conveniently failed to clock that Conservative peers were amongst those rejecting her spiteful and undemocratic initiatives. She also unambiguously spelled out that her measures were directly aimed at Insulate Britain and XR.

She’s not that bothered about anti-vaxx yobs assaulting police officers and stealing NHS equipment, but then they are probably on her side, politically.

Anyway, that’s all good…BUT, meanwhile in the House of Commons…

And here is a brilliant argument for electoral reform:

So, while we can feel much cheered by evidence of real, heartfelt support for many of our democratic rights and real, heartfelt antipathy to Patel’s agenda, we are a long way from being out of the woods. These Trump-style voter suppression tactics are all part of a power-grab by this corrupt and authoritarian government. We will need to mount another strong campaign to defeat the measures in the Lords when the Elections Bill is debated in the Commons and voted on in February.

Still to come:     

The Border and Nationalities Bill

Judicial Review and Courts Bill

As mentioned above, there is a rumour that Patel will try to get a mini bill passed covering all her worst ambitions for quelling and criminalising dissent. Vigilance, as ever, is essential…coupled with determination and cooperation across all the groups who could be affected by bad law from a bad government!

Come to our Democracy in Danger Zoom panel event on Thursday Jan 20 at 20:00. It’s free; just reserve your place here.