In response to those who have contacted me about this bill, I would highlight some of the key things it brings, which the public also broadly support, like: stronger protections for our emergency workers if attacked, longer sentences for sex offenders and premeditated attacks, stronger powers to protect war memorials, stronger laws to deal with illegal encampments, tougher laws to deal with dangerous drivers to name but a few.
I voted for this Bill to pass second reading, and I hope that the response gives you an understanding of my thinking about this matter.
The Timing of the Debate
The Bill is a major piece of legislation. The Government was elected on a clear manifesto commitment to make our country safer, and that does mean backing our amazing police, preventing and cutting crime. I make no apology in supporting these aims, and I have been listening to the debate with interest but I am also minded that the exchanges in the Chamber having been taking place following the most tragic case involving Sarah Everard in Clapham.
For a woman who was noted to be merely walking home from a friend’s house on a Wednesday night to be taken from the streets in such a way is utterly troubling. No one should feel threatened when they are walking along our streets, and I fully understand that her tragic death raised difficult and critical questions about the safety of women out and about in our communities as well as wider public alarm.
Then we turn to the events in Clapham Common on Saturday 13 March which are now subject to a comprehensive review. I was able to ask a question in the Chamber on 15 March, and whilst the Home Secretary’s response was brief due to reasons of parliamentary time, I wanted to get my thoughts on the record, with my question as follows:
I have been contacted by several constituents in Bosworth who are concerned about events over the weekend. On one hand some are concerned about the police’s conduct, and on the other hand are concerns about mass gatherings during a pandemic. What assessment has my right hon. Friend made about the fact that this is an operational issue for the Met, versus the fundamental framework of the law? Taking that forward, will she reassure my constituents that the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill will protect the rights of those protesting and the right of the police to be safe, but also set out the responsibility of those protesting not to cause “serious disruption”, and that of the police to act proportionately?
I note from the Urgent Statement that the review report will hopefully be available in around two weeks’ time, and mindful of this triangular balance that I have presented to you, I will be interested to consider the recommendations of the report. If you have a particular interest in the wider policy issues arising from women’s health and safety you may wish to engage with the following consultations, already 78,000 submissions have been made and counting:
- Call for evidence on violence against women and girls:
- Women’s health strategy:
Turning to your specific reference about protests, I fully recognise that in this country we have a long-standing tradition that people can gather together and demonstrate. Key protests have informed policy through many centuries and that will continue for many centuries to come but in recent years, we have seen the extensive disruption that some protests have caused in recent years, stopping people getting on with their daily lives, hampering the free press and blocking access to Parliament.
After taking private and public counsel, I support the proposed measures. I note particular concern about how the Bill will widen the range of conditions that the police can impose on static protests, to match existing police powers to impose conditions on marches.
This is an important point – this is not new law, but Ministers are drawing two similar situations, one of static protests with the other of marches and processions – so they are legally equivalent. We must recognise that the way people gather and demonstrate has changed over the years, so the law that manages these situations must keep in step with these changes. Examples of actions causing “serious disruption,” which is a term well understood in case law, might include:
- Blocking a bridge or road to stop pedestrians and/or traffic from getting through;
- Preventing a train from leaving a station;
- Physically preventing a printing press from operating due to a disagreement with the editorial position of that publication.
You may find the attach weblink useful to provide context:
If you wish for an example, you could consider the impact of the Extinction Rebellion protests in recent years. Whilst I believe that the issue of Climate Change needs to be robustly tackled, championing the research and development capability of Bosworth and East Midlands businesses to contribute to our emerging UK Green Economy, I do not support an approach which shuts off large parts of central London including crucial road junctions and bridges, as well as gluing by protestors to underground trains. We may not have been directly affected by these actions watching the footage from Bosworth, but that disruption caused critical issues for the working daily life of London; a situation of no benefit for any party.
I also believe that under no circumstances that protests should become violent. The rights to a peaceful protest do not extend to harassment, intimidating behaviour or serious disruption to public order. Responsibility for the maintenance of public order lies with the police, who have a range of powers to manage protests. How they deploy their powers and the tactics they use are rightly an operational matter for the police but I am pleased that we live in a country where policing is by consent. However, the police must act proportionately, and a robust mechanism for reviewing cases and the incidents must be in place and allowed to establish facts, learn lessons, and hold those in charge to account where found wanting. This is imperative and crucial, and I believe in place.
As the Home Secretary stated in the debate on 15 March, the following criteria about conditions being placed on protests is important to note:
- The threshold at which the police can impose conditions on the use of noise at a protest is high. The majority of protesters will be able to continue.
- The police will put conditions on noisy protests causing “significant disruption” (as outlined above) to those in the vicinity. However, the police report needs to be proportionate.
- Any harm from a protest needs to affect the public or a cross-section of the public, not just an individual.
Please read the following weblink for further information about the exchange: (https://hansard.parliament.uk/commons/2021-03-15/debates/3F59B66E-E7A1-484B-86E3-E78E71D0FE0F/PoliceCrimeSentencingAndCourtsBill#contribution-75511605-FC08-45C3-BF83-271357883998.)
I am also mindful that like it or not, we continue to deal with a global pandemic. At the time or writing, a national lockdown is in place so we must all stay at home leaving for a small number of essential reasons outlined in law. It is very difficult. There is no doubt that these restrictions are difficult to accept in a democratic and free society but this is an extraordinary time and I have concluded that the current action to stop the spread of the disease is necessary, however uncomfortable it is for us all. Everyone is required to follow these rules.
In conclusion, the right to protest peacefully is a fundamental part of our democracy. The police have a tough job in this area and at the time of global pandemic, we as the general public, and myself as a member of the general public and as a national legislator and making the best out of a difficult situation playing out an emotive and extraordinary time. I have been advised that these new measures only pertain to protests that have a significantly disruptive effect where public order is threatened or access to Parliament is hindered.
This fundamental debate hinges on the issue of rights versus responsibility and we must all play our part to succeed at this changeable time to balance the right to protest (the cornerstone to British traditions and democracy,) the need for the police to oversee a protest in a controlled but empathetic matter (especially in regard to this case,) and the public health realities of mass gatherings that we are facing in terms of a global pandemic. I look to agencies to come together in a spirit of honest discussions about issues arising, and the best strategic planning being made in difficult circumstances.
With the correct framework in place, operational independence but dialogue and understanding of each situation, I believe we can create an environment for responsible protests and gatherings, policed in a proportionate manner, and this should be our aim.
Other Measures in the Bill
This Bill is just not about issues arising from protests, and I am troubled that at the time of writing, the opposition is seeking to vote down this bill, and therefore vote down the other important measures that seek to protect the public including women. If you have further queries about this Bill, please get back in touch but you may find the attach weblink useful to provide context about these measures contained in this landmark bill:
I am proud of our police and other emergency workers, they do a unique and remarkable job in the face of enormous challenges and pressures; these pressures have dramatically increased during the Covid 19 pandemic. The Bill will enshrine a Police covenant in law to support and protect those within or retired from policing roles whether paid or as a volunteer. The Covenant will focus on protection, health and wellbeing and support for families. It is also not remotely acceptable at any level to assault emergency workers. You may have seen media coverage of attacks and such assaults can not be tolerated. The Government is legislating to double the maximum penalty for assaults on emergency workers from 12 months to two years’ imprisonment. I support this measure.
The Serious Violence Duty will require local authorities, the police, criminal justice agencies, health authorities and fire and rescue services to work together to tackle serious violence in local areas. I also support the Government’s work to strengthen laws to increase the maximum sentence from three months to 10 years’ imprisonment for criminal damage to a memorial where the value involved in monetary terms in assessed to be less than £5,000. I can not tolerate wanton vandalism to our war memorials and other statues; these measures cause considerable distress amongst the general public, and this distress can not be ignored.
I am also minded of the impact that the setting up of illegal traveller sites can be a real nuisance for local communities and an inappropriate development of open space. We have faced these difficulties in Bosworth. The Bill will introduce a new criminal offence where a person resides or intends to reside on any public or private land without permission and has caused, or is likely to cause significant harm, obstruction or harassment or distress. There are further measures including to broaden the list of harms considered by the police when directing people away from land, and increasing the period in which persons directed away from land must not return from three months to 12 months.
I know that many people feel that young people on the border of adulthood do not receive the sentences they deserve simply as a consequence of their age. I agree action is needed here to tackle that concern. The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill will reduce the opportunities for those over 18 who committed murder as a child to have their minimum term reviewed. In addition, the Bill will introduce a sliding scale so there are different starting points that take into consideration the age of the child and the seriousness of the murder. This means that the older the child and the more serious the murder, the higher the starting point. This reflects that children develop and mature at a much faster rate and that children are very different at age 17 compared to age 10. This also means there will be less of a gap between the starting points for older children and young adults.
Finally, the Bill will increase the maximum penalty for causing death by dangerous driving and death by careless driving when under the influence of drink or drugs to life imprisonment. In addition, it is the case that there is a gap in the law relating to serious injury. I therefore welcome the fact that the Bill will also create a new offence of causing serious injury by careless driving. Mindful of recent incidents in Bosworth, I was interested to read about these measures and I will be interested to consider how these actions can be put into practice by the police and the judicial system.
I will continue to support measures by the Government to strengthen sentencing, ensure justice is served and increase public confidence in the criminal justice system and monitor this debate with interest, raising issues as appropriate.