What is the Public Order Bill that would clamp down on ‘disruptive’ protests?

The new bill would grant the police more powers when it comes to protests (Joe Giddens / PA)
The new bill would grant the police more powers when it comes to protests (Joe Giddens / PA)

Extinction Rebellion (XR) members broke into the House of Lords on Monday (January 30) to oppose the new Public Order Bill.

Twelve members of the environmental activist group who were wearing shirts with the message "Defend Human Rights" disrupted the proceedings.

Doormen and security guards took them out of the upper chamber. The unrest resulted in a brief adjournment of the proceedings, but no arrests were made.

The bill is currently in its final stages of debate in Parliament. However, before it becomes enshrined in law, the Government wants to broaden the definition of “serious disruption”.

Its definition will determine when and to what extent police could use their new powers to deal with protesters.

“The right to protest is a fundamental principle of our democracy, but this is not absolute,” Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said on January 15.

“We cannot have protests conducted by a small minority disrupting the lives of the ordinary public. It’s not acceptable and we’re going to bring it to an end.”

He was referring to activists smearing chocolate cake on the waxwork of King Charles III; spray-painting shopfronts; throwing tomato soup at one of Vincent van Gogh’s paintings; and disrupting traffic in key areas.

But what exactly is the Public Order Bill? Here is everything we know.

What is the Public Order Bill?

This aims to grant police new powers, allowing them to take a more “proactive” approach to disruptive protests. This includes making obstructing a major transport network a new offence.

The proposed legislation would also create a new criminal offence of interfering with infrastructure, such as airports, railways, and oil refineries. Such an offence would carry sentences of up to 12 months in prison.

Several activists were arrested after the Just Stop Oil protests in November 2022 (PA Wire)
Several activists were arrested after the Just Stop Oil protests in November 2022 (PA Wire)

The bill would also involve sentences of up to six months or unlimited fines for protesters accused of “locking on” to buildings, objects, or people.

A penalty of up to three years would be given to those tunnelling under infrastructure to cause damage.

What has Suella Braverman said of the new bill?

The Home Secretary Suella Braverman has long expressed opposition to such protests. She told the Conservative Party conference in Birmingham in October that there was “not a human right to vandalise property”.

Braverman was referring specifically to Just Stop Oil’s protests. These involved activists dangling from the Queen Elizabeth II bridge at the Dartford Crossing, causing it to close on October 18, 2022.

In a parliamentary debate, she said: “Yes, I’m afraid, it’s the Labour Party, it’s the Lib Dems, it’s the coalition of chaos, it’s the Guardian-reading, tofu-eating wokerati, dare I say, the anti-growth coalition that we have to thank for the disruption that we are seeing on our roads today.”

The bill would stop demonstrators from holding the public “to ransom”, Braverman added.

How are people reacting to the bill?

While some people agree with the need to prevent protests that disrupt the life of many, especially if it leads to tragedies, others believe the move is anti-democratic and gives the police too much power.

“The police already have adequate powers to arrest people and move them on,” Shami Chakrabarti CBE, a House of Lords peer, a Labour Party member, and the director of the human-rights advocacy group Liberty, told BBC Radio.

“This, I fear, is about treating all peaceful dissent as effectively terrorism.”

In the first setback for the bill in the Lords, peers on Monday backed by 243 votes to 221, majority 22, a higher threshold before police can intervene in protests with a stricter definition of “serious disruption”.

Later, a Government-backed move to prevent protesting “an issue of current debate” being used as a reasonable defence for offences such as locking-on, tunnelling and blocking roads was narrowly rejected by 224 votes to 221.

The defeats set the stage for a tussle between the unelected chamber and the Commons over the proposed law, known as parliamentary ping-pong.