First thing’s first: what’s the public order bill?
The bill is the Tories’ latest attempt to expand police powers to deal with escalating protest action, particularly from environmental and anti-racist movements, by effectively treating it as domestic terrorism. In fact, experts have suggested the bill is “more extreme than many counter-terror powers”.
First tabled in May last year, it mops up many of the odds and sods that didn’t make it into the police, crime, sentencing and courts bill (now the PCSC Act), including criminalising “locking on”, suspicionless stop and searches, and serious disruption prevention orders to ban individuals from protesting.
The government knows many of these measures are pointless – in 2021, the police inspectorate advised the Home Office that protest banning orders would both be ineffective and breach human rights – but is ploughing ahead anyway.
So what’s the latest?
Well, bills often take many months to pass through parliament and into the statute books. Often, the government will draw out the process in order to exhaust their opponents. That’s exactly what the Tories did with the PCSC bill, and it looks as if they’re repeating the trick now.
A full eight months after its first reading, the public order bill is now being debated in the House of Lords, where further amendments are being tabled. Last week – the same day that high-ranking Met officer David Carrick was outed as a serial rapist – the government announced a number of new amendments that together represent the potentially unlimited expansion of police power over protest.
What are the amendments?
The first one is the real killer. The PCSC Act made it possible for the police to put conditions on protests if they thought it would cause “serious disruption” (some might argue, the very point of having a protest). Now, this new amendment to the public order bill makes clear that the police won’t have to wait for that serious disruption to happen – they can simply shut it down if they think it might.
Oh, so the police are mind-readers now?
Apparently so. “This degree of pre-emption will basically shut down the kind of dissent that isn’t even causing disruption at all because their definition will set such a low bar,” Labour’s former shadow attorney general Shami Chakrabarti told Radio 4 last week.
It’s also worth thinking about the demographic implications of this predictive logic, given how existing forms of predictive policing – the gangs matrix, for example – classifies certain types of people as inherently criminal.
What about the second amendment?
This would allow the police to treat multiple actions by the same group as one. This means that if Just Stop Oil organised a bake sale tomorrow, the police could shut it down because Just Stop Oil once blocked a motorway. There’s rich comedy potential here, I’ll give them that.
So what now?
The amendments will have to be debated in the Lords then be voted on. If the bill passes, it’ll go to King Charles for his assent (a formality, supposedly – except when laws affect the royals, of course). If it fails, it’ll bounce back to the Commons, who’ll have to amend the bill and send it back up to the Lords (this “parliamentary ping-pong” can go on for months) or overrule the Lords and force the bill through – not inconceivable, given this government’s authoritarian tendencies.
Who’s opposing it?
Despite the unfolding crisis within the Met – with home secretary Suella Braverman hinting that there are more police rapists still to be outed – opposition to the public order bill has thus far been more low-key than to the PCSC bill, confined mostly to the media and far less visible on the streets.
There are a number of factors here. One is that opposition to the PCSC bill, which converged in the Kill the Bill movement, arose from the maelstrom effect created by a combination of lockdown, the BLM uprising and the murder of Sarah Everard.
Another factor is that Kill the Bill, which might otherwise have been driving opposition to the public order bill, has mostly devolved into a network of local CopWatch groups that take on the police in their areas more than at a national level. You can find your local group here. In the meantime, here’s how to intervene in a police stop.
That isn’t to say there isn’t opposition, however – both through its incorporation into multi-issue campaigns like Enough Is Enough and through the continuation of protests despite an increasingly hostile environment.
Surprisingly, even Labour – which famously flip-flopped on the PCSC bill, only opposing it at the eleventh hour – has expressed opposition to the bill, with Keir Starmer pointing out that the police already have powers to police protest (though he did also add that Just Stop Oil were “deeply arrogant”, for good measure).
Rivkah Brown is a commissioning editor and reporter at Novara Media.