Police powers to prevent anything more than a "minor hindrance" to the public could be applied to Pride marches, an expert has warned. Image: MangakaMaiden Photography/flickr
Football matches, pride marches, and remembrance vigils are all among the ordinary acts that could be criminalised by a new government crackdown on slow walking protests.
Police will be able to stop any protest causing more than a “minor hindrance” to the public, thanks to a new change to the Public Order Act passed by the government. The measure is targeted at Just Stop Oil and other climate activists, but it’s not just these protesters that could feel the heat.
Amid warnings that the measure could give police “near total discretion” to stop protests, experts and politicians say the vague nature and wording of the law means almost any protest – and some everyday activities – risk being criminalised thanks to the crackdown.
Examples of the activities and protests that could get caught up with the new slow-walking law, according to experts and politicians:
Couples walking arm-in-arm who bump into someone
Notting Hill Carnival
Protesters crossing the road near roadworks
Picketing rail workers outside train stations
Protests against library and school closures
The government’s move to give police the powers was slapped down by the UN, with Clément Voule, the special rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly, telling The Big Issue slow walking protests are “legitimate and important” and disruption “must be tolerated in any democratic society.”
There was also controversy over the way the legislation was put through parliament by the government.
It was initially rejected by the Lords as an amendment to the Public Order act and could not be added back to the bill. But the government brought it back as a statutory instrument, an unprecedented approach according to the Lords secondary legislation scrutiny committee.
“We are deeply concerned to see the proposal return in a highly irregular way, through a statutory instrument. This is inappropriate, and undermines the proper parliamentary process, especially given the broad nature of the definition,” warned Tyrone Steele, interim legal director at human rights charity Justice.
Braverman argued the new powers were needed to stop protesters who are “wreaking havoc in people’s everyday lives’.
The new threshold of “more than minor” disruption gives police the power to apply restrictions to a range of normal activities, said Steele.
“The police will now have an immense amount of discretion to deem what should otherwise be ordinary, peaceful activities as ‘disruptive’, from a couple walking arm-in-arm down the street who bump into someone, to virtually any gathering which would otherwise be lawful, such as community and religious events, vigils, and trade disputes,” Steele told The Big Issue.
“The scope of these new powers risks severely undermining fundamental protests rights, and eroding the UK’s adherence to the rule of law”.
Protesters could be held responsible for traffic congestion happening near their protest, shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper warned in a debate on the legislation on Monday.
“The regulations refer, for example, to ‘normal traffic congestion’ now being a significant factor,” Cooper said in the Commons.
“What does that mean? Does it mean that if roadworks are causing a local traffic jam and some protesters happen to cross the road, they can be arrested for the traffic jam?”
Communities campaigning against closures of libraries or swimming pools might be barred from protesting, Cooper also said.
“They give the police the power to prevent any and every campaign group from protesting outside a local library or swimming pool that is about to be closed because it ‘may’ be a little ‘more than minor’,” she said in the House of Commons.
“That makes it harder for law-abiding, peaceful campaigners who want to work with the police to organise a limited protest—something that we should all want people to do—all for the sake of the Home Secretary getting a few more headlines.”
Striking rail workers could be prevented from picketing outside train stations, human rights group Liberty warned.
“The police could consider that a static assembly outside a train station by a trade union will result in a ‘more than minor’ delay in access to public transportation services,” the group said in a briefing on the measure.
“The police could subsequently impose a condition that the trade union cannot protest outside the train station – even though they are precisely seeking to protest outside their workplace/against their employer.”