Thank you for contacting me about the Public Order Bill.
Recent protest activity from a minority of individuals utilising guerrilla tactics has caused misery to the hard-working public, disrupted businesses, interfered with emergency services, cost millions in taxpayers’ money and put lives at risk. Indeed, fuel supply has been disrupted by protesters tunnelling under oil terminals and cutting the brakes on tankers, and police officers have spent hours trying to remove individuals from some of the UK’s busiest and most dangerous motorways.
The Government is therefore legislating to equip the police to better manage and tackle dangerous and highly disruptive tactics, as well as prevent major transport projects and infrastructure from being targeted by protestors.
You have raised a number of issues with regard to the Bill and I will deal with each in turn.
- Serious Disruption Prevention Orders (SDPOs)
Through the new Public Order Bill, the Government plans to introduce SDPOs, a new preventative court order targeting protesters who are determined to repeatedly inflict disruption on the public. This will allow courts to place prohibitions or requirements they consider necessary to prevent someone from causing serious disruption. These may include prohibiting an individual from being in a particular place, being with particular people, having particular articles in their possession, and using the internet to facilitate or encourage persons to commit a protest-related offence.
The court may also require a person subject to an SDPO to wear an electronic tag. Breach of an SDPO is a criminal offence carrying a maximum penalty of six months’ imprisonment, an unlimited fine, or both.
I would like to reassure you that the threshold for imposing an SDPO will be suitably high. At least two of the circumstances listed in the legislation must be met for the court to be able to issue an order. Furthermore, for all the circumstances given, the relevant period for consideration of convictions or behaviour will be five years prior to the day an SDPO is imposed.
I understand that the Government has also recently tabled an amendment to the Bill in the House of Lords providing greater clarity on the definition of 'serious disruption'. As such, I can assure you that measures contained in the Bill will only be used to deal with specific incidences and protests that prevent people from being able to go about their daily lives.
- Locking On
The new Public Order Bill seeks to criminalise the protest tactic of individuals attaching themselves to others, objects or buildings to cause serious disruption. The locking on offence will carry a maximum penalty of six months’ imprisonment, an unlimited fine, or both. The maximum penalty for the offence of going equipped to lock on will be an unlimited fine.
Locking on is undoubtedly an extremely dangerous and disruptive tactic. For example, protestors locking on from great heights places at risk not only the protestor themselves, but also police removal teams. Indeed, I am pleased that the law-abiding majority recognise the necessity of bringing forward legislative measures to combat this type of protest activity. A recent YouGov poll found that close to two-thirds (63 per cent) of the public support making locking on a criminal offence. A separate survey found that 53 per cent of those asked supported tougher measures for activists blocking roads, transport and other infrastructure.
- Stop and Search
The new stop and search powers contained in the Public Order Bill seek to enable the police to proactively tackle highly disruptive protest offences by searching for and seizing items which are made, adapted, or intended to be used in connection with protest-related offences. In their 2021 report on the policing of protests, His Majesty’s Inspector of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services agreed that such powers would have an operational benefit to police.
The Bill provides for both a suspicion-led power, amending section 1 of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, and a suspicion-less power. Suspicion-led stop and search is where a police officer suspects that a person is carrying an object that they intend to use in connection with a protest-related offence. When the suspicion-less stop and search power has been authorised, it will allow a constable to conduct a stop and search without the need for suspicion.
The suspicion-less stop and search power uses a similar framework to that found within section 60 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 to ensure consistency in terms of police powers and safeguards.
I understand your concerns regarding stop and search. There has to be a balance between deploying tactics to help fight crime and ensuring no one feels unduly threatened. However, I want to be clear, no one should be targeted because of their race.
I am confident that these changes to public order law will put a stop to the relentless reoffending and significant disruption caused by a selfish minority of protesters which impinge on the rights of the British public to go about their daily lives in peace.
Thank you again for taking the time to contact me.
Sally-Ann Hart MP