The government is proposing new laws that would allow police to stop and search protesters without suspicion and make “locking on” a crime.
Amendments to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which had already included “draconian” powers to ban protests over noise, were sparked by disruption caused by Insulate Britain demonstrations.
Members of the House of Lords voiced anger of the amendments late addition to the bill, which has already been voted on by MPs, and campaigners accused the government of trying to bypass parliamentary scrutiny.
The proposals include tougher sentences for blocking motorways and allowing police officers to stop and search anyone at a protest “without suspicion” for items used to prevent a person being moved, known as “locking-on”.
Individuals with a history of causing serious disruption also face being banned by the courts from attending certain protests, even if they have not committed an offence.
Home Office minister Baroness Williams of Trafford said the measures were necessary “to protect the public from the unacceptable levels of disruption that we have seen as a result of the reckless and selfish tactics employed by some protest organisations in recent weeks”.
Addressing the House of Lords on Wednesday night, she added: “We stand by the right to protest, but that does not afford a right to cause unlimited disruption to others irrespective of the cost to business, the dangers caused to road users and the police, the risk to life by blocking ambulances and the hardship caused to the public seeking to get to work or going about their daily lives.”
However, opposition peers strongly criticised the controversial measures and the way they have been introduced at such a late stage of the passage of the bill, which has already gone through the Commons.
The provisions come on top of other contentious curbs on demonstrations proposed in the legislation, including powers to impose conditions on protests judged to be too noisy.
Liberal Democrat peer Lord Paddick, who was a deputy assistant commissioner in the Metropolitan Police, said: “These are outrageous proposals with serious consequences in terms of police powers, infringement of civil liberties and the creation of new offences, introduced in a wholly unacceptable way at the last minute at the committee stage in the House of Lords, where the other place [MPs] will have very little, if any, time to properly consider them.”
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Lord Paddick asked why the government was proposing new stop and search powers targeting protesters, saying that black people were already eight times more likely to be searched and trust in police was currently low.
“The police did not ask for this power, and some do not want it, so why are the government doing this?” he asked.
“This is yet another example of ‘what wizard ideas can we think up in line with the home secretary telling the Tory party conference she was going to get tough on protesters?’ This is a power that the police have not asked for and where the evidence shows that harsher penalties do not deter offenders.”
The former shadow attorney general Baroness Chakrabarti said the bill’s protest provisions were “some of the most contentious” ever seen.
She said the proposals were “arguably contrary to the human rights convention, and are certainly thought to be very contentious and illiberal by many communities in this country”.
Green Party peer Baroness Jones said: “This is nothing more than a naked attack on civil liberties and a crackdown on protest, and we must oppose it for both what it is and how it is being done.”
Labour frontbencher Lord Kennedy of Southwark said: “Crucial to remember is that although we are responding to one particularly crass protest [by Insulate Britain], the law being debated would not just apply to that one crass protest but all peaceful protests and that is the issue.”
Baroness Trafford said the government would table the amendments for a vote at a later stage
The Liberty human rights group called the amendments a “power grab” by the government and an attack on the right to protest.
Policy officer Emmanuelle Andrews, said: “Protest is not a gift from the state – it’s a fundamental right. The Policing Bill is an attack on the rights of everyone who has a cause they believe in.
“Protest is a core pillar of any healthy democracy. These new powers are a threat to our rights, and an opportunistic move from a government determined to shut down dissent, stifle democratic scrutiny and make itself untouchable.”
Amnesty UK said the changes “make a bad bill even worse”. Government relations manager Karla McLaren added: “These amendments give the police further powers to restrict legitimate freedom of expression and as we’ve seen elsewhere in this bill, a huge increase in stop and search powers.
“All available evidence says that doesn’t deter crime, but instead fuels racism and the over-policing of marginalised groups, alienating entire communities and eroding trust in the police.“
Mark Johnson, of Big Brother Watch, said: ”The government’s proposed additions to the policing bill take this draconian legislation from bad to worse. Adding oppressive new measures at this late stage in the passage of the bill is nothing but a cynical attempt to bypass parliamentary scrutiny.
“The government should remember that it is the police’s role to facilitate citizens’ right to protest, not to treat them like criminals.“
The StopWatch UK group accused the government of an “obsession with expanding stop and search powers”.
Policy manager Habib Kadiri added: “It is based on nothing more than a belief that stop and search is ”a vital tool“ against criminal activity, when recent data published by the Home Office itself proves the opposite.
“We fear that it will also become yet another stick to oppress those from the most marginalised communities, notably people of colour.”