Row erupts over ‘draconian’ protest laws that give police powers to shut down demonstrations before they start

Just Stop Oil protesters blocking traffic in central London last November (PA Media)
Just Stop Oil protesters blocking traffic in central London last November (PA Media)

A row has erupted over proposed new laws that could see police shut down protests before they become disruptive.

An amendment to the Government’s Public Order Bill aims to give officers greater clarity about when they can intervene to stop campaigners, such as Just Stop Oil and Insulate Britain, from blocking roads or slow marching.

If passed, it will mean police can shut down protests and potentially arrest participants before there is any disruption.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said the new laws will give forces “more clarity to crack down on guerrilla tactics” used during marches.

But Labour peer Baroness Chakrabarti branded the bill “draconian” and warned it could mean all peaceful dissent was treated as "effectively terrorism".

The former shadow attorney general told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: “This is a very draconian Bill, it is a blank cheque of police powers at a time when there are considerable concerns about public trust in the police.

“The police already have adequate powers to arrest people and move them on when they are obstructing the highway.

“This, I fear, is treating all peaceful dissent as effectively terrorism and this Bill looks very similar to anti-terror legislation we've seen in the past.”

The proposals, being announced by ministers on Monday, come after police chiefs claimed there was uncertainty over what can be currently classed as “serious disruption” under existing law.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer argued that the police already have powers to act against unruly protests and the Government was simply passing more legislation instead of “solving the problem”.

The former director of public prosecutions told LBC: “I am as strong as anyone in the argument we need to take action against Just Stop Oil – gluing yourself to the road, taking those actions, stopping ambulances getting through – wrong, deeply arrogant and I want the police to act.”

But he added the police wanted “clarity” on the law.

Sir Keir said: “If I was Prime Minister what I would do instead of more headline-grabbing legislation, I would get the chief constables into a room, sit them down with me and say ‘right, what's the problem?’

“Because I don’t accept that, if you are walking at a funereal pace that is not obstructing the highway and I think if police were told, in terms, ‘yes, that is an offence, get on and do something about it’, they could get on and do something about it tomorrow morning.”

Met Police Commissioner Sir Mark Rowley said “everybody has the right to protest”, but his officers were increasingly being “drawn into complex legal arguments about the balance between that right to protest and the rights of others to go about their daily lives”.

He added: “The lack of clarity in the legislation and the increasing complexity of the case law is making this more difficult and more contested.

“It is for Parliament to decide the law, and along with other police chiefs, I made the case for a clearer legal framework in relation to protest, obstruction and public nuisance laws. We have not sought any new powers to curtail or constrain protest, but have asked for legal clarity about where the balance of rights should be struck.”

London Assembly Green Party leader, Caroline Russell, described the amendment as “scary”.

“Arrest would be possible before any disruption or even any protest takes place,” she said. “Not sure that this will simplify policing decisions on protest as the Met hopes.”