Boris Johnson’s controversial curbs on protests have passed its first parliamentary hurdle despite some MPs warning they would “make a dictator blush” and show his government’s liking for “authoritarianism”.
The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill passed a second reading by 359 votes to 263, majority 96, in a vote in the Commons on Tuesday night.
Not a single Tory voted against the bill which critics have said includes the “some of the most draconian crackdowns on the right of peaceful protest we’ve seen in our lifetime”.
Labour tabled an amendment intended to block the Bill from being considered further, although this was defeated by 359 votes to 225, majority 134.
The motion from Labour was based on support for some sections – such as tougher sentences for serious crimes including child murder – alongside warnings it “rushes” changes to protest law and “fails” to take action to protect women.
As part of efforts to overhaul the justice system, the government has proposed a raft of changes in the Bill.
The legislation includes provisions to crack down on demonstrations if they are too noisy or cause “serious annoyance”, and seeks to toughen the punishment for people who damage statues.
Police will be able to use such powers “where noise causes a significant impact on those in the vicinity or serious disruption to the running of an organisation”.
And who gets to decide what counts as “significant impact” or “serious disruption”? That would be home secretary Priti Patel, who last month said Black Lives Matter protests were “dreadful” and has spoken of Extinction Rebellion as “criminals” who threaten the UK’s way of life.
Speaking in the Commons, DUP MP Gavin Robinson (Belfast East) said: “I must indicate that I rail against, in the strongest possible terms, the overarching, sweeping and draconian provisions on protest. I have heard government’s position around what they intend.
“The loose and lazy way this legislation is drafted would make a dictator blush. Protests will be noisy, protests will disrupt and no matter how offensive we may find the issue at their heart, the right to protest should be protected.”
MPs debated the Bill as hundreds of demonstrators gathered in Parliament Square to protest against it, in the latest public display of anger in the wake of the Metropolitan Police’s handling of the vigil for Sarah Everard at Clapham Common on Saturday.
Protesters chanted “kill the bill” as some carried banners, including one which said “the right to protest is a human right”.
Back in the Commons debate, Labour MP Clive Efford (Eltham) claimed: “We’re witnessing a Tory-led coup without guns.”
Labour former justice minister Maria Eagle added: “This populist government has swiftly developed a penchant for authoritarianism.”
Shadow justice secretary David Lammy said: “The truth … is (the government) is introducing these measures because it dislikes Black Lives Matter, because it hates Extinction Rebellion, because both tell too many hard truths.”
For the government, Justice Secretary Robert Buckland accused Labour of putting “party interests before the national interest” by attempting to block the Bill.
The legislation also proposes expanding the area around Parliament where some protest activities are banned.
Conservative MP Sir David Amess (Southend West) said: “My office looks onto Parliament Square and I have long complained about the endless demonstrations which take place on this very busy roundabout.
““t is absolutely ridiculous. It is very difficult to work because of the noise, with drums, horns and loud speakers.
“Policing these so-called events costs a huge amount of money and Parliament being the seat of democracy, our work should not be disrupted.”
The wide-ranging Bill includes plans to bring in tougher sentences for child killers and those who cause death on the roads, longer jail terms for serious violent and sexual offenders, and expand child sex abuse laws to ban religious leaders and sports coaches from having sex with 16 and 17-year-olds in their care.
The Bill could also see the maximum penalty for criminal damage of a memorial increased from three months to 10 years.
Buckland, reflecting on the death of 33-year-old marketing executive Everard, said: “Where women, all too often, feel unsafe then it is the wrong response to say to them ‘stay indoors, don’t go out alone’.
“Instead of questioning the victim, we have to deal with the perpetrator.
“When I think of how far we have come, I sharply remind myself about how far we still have to go.”
Buckland said there have been more 120,000 submissions in three days to a consultation on the violence against women and girls strategy, adding: “Society is speaking and it is for all of us to be up to the level of events.”
The Bill will undergo further scrutiny at a later stage.