By Ann Higgins
In the midst of the terrible events in Ukraine and the suffering of millions of people both in Ukraine and the displaced, and all their relatives and friends who are desperately trying to discover their fate, as well as debating our response to the growing tragedy, MPs have been continuing to grapple with the repressive legislation that our Tory government is trying to impose upon us whilst simultaneously decrying measures taken against Russian protestors, which are not that different from what they are themselves supporting.
Here are some developments since our last newsletter:
- On the eve of votes in the House of Lords (HoL) on the Elections Bill which received its second reading there on 23 February (committee stage sittings on 10, 15 and 17 March), there has been what the Electoral Reform Society describes as an unprecedented letter written by the Electoral Commission to the government expressing their concern about the interference with its independence posed by the proposed introduction of a Strategy and Policy Statement which they say would enable the government to guide the work of the Commission. Whether the government will be any more moved by the view of the Commission itself than it was by that of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Select Committee (which also asked the government to think again about this and other measures in the Bill, e.g. the introduction of Voter ID) remains to be seen.
- Since the HoL passed an amendment to the PCSC Bill repealing the parts of the Vagrancy Act 1824 which made rough sleeping a crime, the government has somewhat unexpectedly announced that it would not seek to reverse that when the Bill went back to the HoC; however they will delay the implementation for 18 months while they introduce “a bold strategy” to deal with rough sleeping. Only time will tell what that will entail. Some other amendments were accepted too, including one strengthening the law against hare coursing, but unfortunately many others were lost including those which would have made demanding sex for rent a specific offence, or have added sex and gender to the aggravating features constituting a hate crime. Most significantly perhaps those removing the clauses allowing conditions to be imposed upon public assemblies, noisy protests and one person protests (the anti-Steve Bray clause) were lost, though somewhat surprisingly Tory MPs Steve Baker and Anne Marie Morris voted to retain the HoL amendment on one person protests, and Steve Baker for the amendment on public assemblies.
There were some extremely well made and telling contributions to the debate but one for me stood out above the others, both for the sentiments expressed and the unusually forthright language used, so I thought that I would reproduce it here:
(Brighton and Kemptown) (Lab)
When people complain to me about the noise at Prime Minister’s questions, I always tell them that they can tune into any of the two-hour hearings of the Select Committees that I sit on and listen to some calm forensic questioning, but they do not, because shouting—the impassioned barrage of noise—is a fundamental of PMQs and of democracy. Democracy is noisy. Democracy is irritating, but that is democracy.
It will come as no surprise to hon. Members that I have attended a good number of protests and never once—never once—have I attended a protest without the intention to disrupt or to make a noise. Quite frankly, what would be the point? When our constituents feel that they cannot be heard through other means, they stand outside and they shout. Even if they are fox hunting supporters or Brexiteers, I smile when I walk past them as they are performing that basic level of democracy—from the agora to Parliament Square. The idea that we would criminalise those people is frankly disgusting.
My hon. Friend is making some excellent points. Does he see the irony that as we watch Putin’s tanks roll into Ukraine and protesters having their peaceful protests broken up by the police, we in this place are debating a Bill that would take away the right to protest?
I do. The expansion of police powers is highly disproportionate. In the words of a former police chief and senior officers who have written to the Government, it will place an “onerous burden” on and apply “greater political pressure” to frontline police. Ultimately, it will be up to the police to determine whether the low threshold has been met.
Ruth Walshe, a volunteer from Green and Black Cross, detailed her experiences of the police during the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020. She heard the police say to her:
“‘who does that b**** think she is’, ‘can’t we lock them and put them in a cell’, ‘what do those f****** want’”.
Reports of that type of behaviour are corroborated by the Charing Cross report, which found that officers present at those protests had made horrific homophobic, sexist and racist remarks. There are very many good police officers, but collectively, there is a problem in the police. Rather than trying to deal with those systemic problems, the Government are saying, “Make racist, sexist or homophobic abuses and you get more powers to control woman, people of colour and queer people.” It is outrageous.
I also rise to speak in support of Lords amendment 87, which would remove clause 61, which should really be called the “Get Steve Bray” clause. I have found Steve bloody irritating at times, but creating an unprecedented and disproportionate law to go after a man who interrupts the Minister’s Sky News interviews is quite frankly pathetic. Some hon. Members may remember Brian Haw, the peace campaigner who lived opposite. It was wrong then for the Labour Government to try to get rid of him from Parliament Square and it was right that Conservative Members stood up for him to stop the law being changed. They should be doing it now.
I will end with this observation. The Government did not like the Black Lives Matter protests when tens of thousands of young people went on to the streets for racial equality, they were embarrassed by the anti-Trump demonstrations during his state visit and they despised the 1 million people who marched to try to stop Brexit, so we are here with a Bill that tries to make the snowflakes opposite feel better. That, frankly, is what they are: the Secretary of State is a snowflake, and the Minister’s Back Benchers are snowflakes. They cannot cope with a bit of robust debate. They cry into their port in the evening when people say things they do not like or they are too noisy. Rather than debate them back or viscerally argue back, what they do is shut them down and make them illegal. It is nasty, it is wrong and it should go.
The whole debate is reproduced here: anyone who wants to read Steve Baker urging his Tory government colleagues into the opposition lobby will find his somewhat singular contribution towards the end of the debate.
- The Nationalities and Borders Bill reached the Committee stage in the HoL on 28 February and 2 and 5 March when the lords voted in favour of no fewer than 18 amendments to the Bill. The details of the amendments are set out here. Unfortunately it’s likely that when it goes back to the Commons in a few weeks’ time those amendments will be voted down by the government majority just as many in the PCSC Bill were.
- Stop Press – BestforBritain reports that there are some very positive noises coming from both sides of the HoL on amendments to the Elections Bill, as explained here. Perhaps what is happening in Ukraine and Russia is changing minds and stiffening sinews. We can but hope.