Activism

Public Order Bill: Linking arms at a protest could mean a year in prison under proposed laws, warn MPs

The committee on human rights has urged the government to review the Public Order Bill, and scrap some clauses all together.

A group of masked demonstrators marches with arms locked at a demonstration on April 19, 2008 in Washington, DC

Demonstrators often march with linked arms as a sign of solidarity. Image: Ben Schumin / Flickr

The Public Order Bill would create “a hostile environment for peaceful protestors”, the parliamentary  committee on human rights has warned, in a damning new report urging ministers to revise the new bill.

Linking arms during a protest could be punishable by 51 weeks in prison under the proposed legislation,  which puts “fundamental democratic rights at risk”, the committee said, urging the government to address “only truly disruptive offences”.

“Locking on” is a tactic used by protestors to make it difficult for police to remove them from the area, and could involve using glue or a padlock to attach part of the body to the ground or railings. The tactic was used by environmental protest group Insulate Britain, who have glued themselves to roads and sat down in front of traffic in recent high-profile actions targeting rush-hour commuters to make the biggest impact.

But without a clear definition, the report warns “‘locking-on’ could encompass actions as simple as linking arms with another individual and would be met with a prison sentence of up to 51 weeks.”

The bill would also grant police new stop and search powers that would let officers conduct searches without reasonable suspicion, leaving “peaceful protestors at risk of arbitrary, discriminatory and invasive treatment.”

The cross-party group of MPs and peers called the legislation “unnecessary interference” that meddles with the “presumption of innocence and the right to fair trial” by shifting the burden of proof onto the protestor. 

Publishing the report, chair of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, Joanna Cherry, said the proposed legislation would put “peaceful protestors at risk of being criminalised, leaving people fearful of severe consequences for minor infractions.”

“The right to peaceful protest is a cornerstone of a healthy democracy, it should be protected,” she said. “The law must strike a careful balance between the right to protest and the prevention of disruption to the wider population. This requires a nuanced approach, yet in reaction to what it perceives as overly disruptive protests the government has decided to take a blunderbuss to the problem.”

The committee called on the government to revise the bill with clearly defined offences to make sure that “only truly disruptive offences” are penalised, and to remove entirely the clause that would “authorise police to stop and search a person or vehicle for a ‘prohibited object’ even if there are not reasonable grounds for suspecting that is the case”.

Many of these “new” measures contained in the Public Order Bill have already been rejected by the House of Lords when it voted on the Policing Bill. Designed to crack down on so-called “eco-zealots” – groups such as Extinction Rebellion, Insulate Britain, and Just Stop Oil – the wide ranging new offences have been criticised by human rights organisations.

“This government is determined to close down all avenues for people to make their voices heard,” said Jun Pang, policy and campaigns officer at Liberty.

“These measures would strike at the heart of protest. They risk criminalising anyone who takes to the streets for a cause they believe in, and violate our fundamental human rights… Protest is not a gift from the state, it is a human right.”

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