Attempts to scrap “dangerous and draconian” curbs on protests have been voted down by Government MPs.
As part of efforts to overhaul the justice system, the Government has proposed a raft of changes in the Bill amid protests outside in Parliament Square.
These changes include plans to give police in England and Wales more powers to impose conditions on non-violent protests judged to be too noisy and thereby causing “intimidation or harassment” or “serious unease, alarm or distress” to the public.
Time and noise limits could be imposed as a result of the measures in the Bill and those convicted could face a fine or jail.
The Liberal Democrat party’s home affairs spokesperson, Alistair Carmichael, called the protest laws “dangerous and draconian”.
“They undermine the proud British tradition of standing up for what we believe in and respecting others’ rights to do the same,” he added.
“This new law would allow the police to clampdown on protests for being too noisy, and create 10-year prison sentences just for causing someone ‘serious annoyance’.”
Several protests have been held in response to the measures, with shouts of “Kill the Bill” heard in the house.
The Liberal Democrats tabled amendments in a bid to remove part three of the Bill, which imposes conditions on processions and protests.
But the party’s amendment one – part of a series of seven to scrap this section of the legislation – was rejected by 354 votes to 273, majority 81.
During the debate, shadow Home Office minister Sarah Jones said the Bill “went too far” in reforming public order legislation.
She said: “The new measures in the Bill target protesters for being too noisy and causing serious unease or serious annoyance.”
Ms Jones added: “The point of protest is to capture attention, protests are noisy, sometimes they are annoying, but they are as fundamental to our democracy as our Parliament.”
Conservative former Cabinet minister David Davis agreed, noting: “It was clearly a breach of the normal reasoning behind a demonstration when somebody glues themselves to a train with the direct intention of inconveniencing everybody else, but demonstrations do lead to inconvenience.”
Pointing to a letter in The Times from a number of police chiefs airing their concerns, he said: “And so it hasn’t just been the sort of lefty liberal legal fraternity that have been worried about this.”
But Home Office minister Victoria Atkins said: “The Bill does not stop the freedom to demonstrate. It balances that freedom against the rights and liberties of others.”
She added: “It will continue to be the case that the police attach conditions to only a small proportion of protests and just to put this in context, in a three-month period earlier this year the NPCC (National Police Chiefs’ Council) assessed that out of more than 2,500 protests no more than a dozen had conditions attached to them.”
Peers could make several changes to the Bill when it reaches the House of Lords.
Elsewhere, Labour’s new clause 31 aiming to give shop workers more protection from violence and abuse was defeated by 350 votes to 233 – majority 117.
But Ms Atkins said the Government is “actively considering” such proposals “if appropriate” when the Bill reaches the House of Lords.
Conservative MPs Philip Davies and Robert Goodwill were among those to call on the Government to offer greater protection to those working in shops.
Former minister Mr Goodwill said: “Shop workers have borne the brunt of much of the abuse regarding mask wearing and social distancing in store, on top of the existing problems associated with verification of age for the purposes of alcoholic drink purchase, drunken abusive behaviour and of course shoplifting.”
Ms Atkins also said the Government was “continuing to examine the case for whether there should be a bespoke offence” on street harassment.
She said: “We therefore recognise the shocking extent of street harassment and the strength of feeling concerning the need for a new offence.
“Whilst it is the case that there are already offences available to address sexual harassment behaviour, (Labour MP Harriet Harman)… can rest assured that we remain open-minded on this issue and are continuing to examine the case for whether there should be a bespoke offence.”
On the issue of how “registered sex offenders are able to change their name without the knowledge of the police”, she added: “We are conducting a time-limited review into the enrolled and unenrolled processes for changing names to better understand the scale and nature of this issue and whether current processes are or could be exploited to facilitate further offending.”