The government said new laws were needed to deal with the disruptive protests of Just Stop Oil, but the legislation was met with widespread warnings from experts and civil liberties groups that it infringes on the civil liberties of everyone in the UK.
Protesters who tunnel, lock on, or obstruct infrastructure and transport projects have all been criminalised by the new law. But the arrests at the coronation also showed how the law could be used to stamp out protest even when demonstrators do their best to stay within the new rules.
If you’re wondering what’s going on, here’s everything you need to know about the Public Order Act.
What is the Public Order Act?
The Public Order Act became law in the days before the coronation and includes new criminal offences designed by the government to deal with protests it sees as disruptive.
There are new offences for locking on and going equipped to lock on, a tactic often used by protesters to disrupt traffic and draw attention by fixing themselves to public areas. Locking on can be penalised with six months in prison and/or an unlimited fine, while going equipped to lock on can be punished with an unlimited fine.
Obstructing major transport works, such as HS2, and interfering with key national infrastructure, such as airports and railways, are also new offences created by the act. They are punishable by six and 12 months’ imprisonment respectively, or an unlimited fine, or both.
Causing serious disruption by tunnelling is a new offence punishable by three years in prison, an unlimited fine, or both.
Being equipped for tunnelling with the intention to cause serious disruption can also be punished with six months in prison, or an unlimited fine, or both.
Police have greater powers for suspicion-led and suspicionless stop and search to try and find items that could be used to carry out a “protest-related offence”.
New serious disruption prevention orders (SDPOs) give the courts the power to ban individuals from protests if they are repeatedly convicted of protest-related offences or repeatedly found in contempt of court for breaking a protest-related injunction.
However, this was not the full slate of crackdowns the government wanted to introduce. A number were thrown out by the House of Lords, including giving police the ability to restrict protests on the “off chance they may become disruptive later on”, as human rights organisation Liberty put it.
What concerns have been raised about the Public Order Act’s impact on the right to protest?
The bill was not without its critics, who raised serious alarm at the effect it would have on the right to protest.
“It is modelled on anti-terror law but aimed at crushing peaceful protest,” Shami Chakrabarti, Labour peer and former director of Liberty, wrote for The Big Issue.
“This power bears a chilling similarity to the anti-terror ‘control orders’ of the past. Only this time, your sin is of being a peaceful dissenter not a suspected terrorist.”
Experts warned that both protests which are legal (at least on paper) under the new laws and completely unrelated members of the public could be caught up in its scope.
Somebody tying up a loud dog outside a cafe could be criminalised under locking-on provisions, while shopkeepers selling soup could also be at risk. “The bill would have a chilling effect on vital freedoms of thought, expression, and assembly, beyond direct supporters of particular protests. Protest Banning Orders could be applied to people with the most tangential connection to a protest, from shopkeepers who sell protesters glue, soup, or cake, to those who post encouraging messages on social media,” Tyrone Steele, criminal lawyer at Justice, told The Big Issue.
Yes. The Public Order Bill gained royal assent on May 2 and came into force as the Public Order Act on May 3 2023.
How has the Public Order Act been used so far?
On the day of the coronation, six people were arrested on suspicion of going equipped for locking on, one of the new offences in the Public Order Act.
The six were among 52 individuals arrested over what the Met called “concerns people were going to disrupt the event”. The force said these included arrests made for breach of the peace and conspiracy to cause a public nuisance, offences separate to the Public Order Act.
The six anti-monarchy protesters were arrested while unloading items from a van, despite having been in contact with the Met’s protest liaison team ahead of the event. The protesters said the offending items – reportedly luggage straps – would be used to secure their placards.
Those arrested were subsequently told no further action will be taken and had their bail cancelled.
“We regret that those six people arrested were unable to join the wider group of protesters in Trafalgar Square and elsewhere on the procession route,” the Met said afterwards.
But while the Met were unable to prove intent to lock on, the protest was stopped, leading to warnings of the Public Order Act’s chilling effect on protest.
“This embarrassing episode for the Met demonstrates the dangers of handing broad and poorly-defined powers to the police – who we know by now are all too happy to use and abuse those powers,” said Sam Grant, advocacy director at Liberty.
“Ahead of the coronation, the government rushed through the Public Order Act – the second piece of draconian legislation in just over a year brought in to crack down on our right to protest and make it easier for the police to arrest people like they did on Saturday. And as we predicted, the police were overzealous in using those powers – with serious consequences for people’s freedom of expression.
“This is not the first time we have seen inappropriate and heavy-handed policing of protest, but we are likely to see more and more of the police misusing their powers in the months ahead with this legislation in place. We should all be very worried about the impact this will have on our right to make our voices heard on the issues that matter to us.
“Any future government that values freedom of expression should be looking to repeal this repressive legislation as soon as they can.”
In the wake of the coronation arrests, Labour faced pressure to commit to undoing the Public Order Act if elected to office in the next general election.
Labour did vote against the law while it was on its way through parliament, but the signs are that the party won’t reverse it in government.
“We can’t come into office, picking through all the conservative legislation and repealing it,” shadow foreign secretary David Lammy said on his LBC radio show. “It would take up so much parliamentary time. We need a positive agenda.”
Shadow levelling up secretary Lisa Nandy said a Labour government would ‘rectify’ some parts of the bill, but would not “wholesale repeal” laws passed by the Conservative government.
“One of the questions we have is ‘why was it that this group were clearly in contact with the Met, had informed them about their plans, and yet still ended up arrested up and prevented from protesting?’,” Nandy told BBC Breakfast three days after the coronation.
“If there is a problem with the legislation, of course we’ll rectify that in government, but we’re not into wholesale repeal of legislation without understanding what the actual problem is first.”
Green Party MP Caroline Lucas has said Labour would have the backing of smaller parties to repeal the bill if it got into government – even with a minority government.
“If Labour gets the majority they tell us they’re on course for, they could overturn this in a day. If they’re a minority government they can be very sure that the smaller parties will back them. The bill is deeply illiberal and we’ve seen the danger of it over this last weekend,” Lucas told the Guardian.