By Ann Higgins

 Photo by Deniz Fuchidzhiev on Unsplash

Perhaps the most publicised events at Westminster over the last month or so have in a way been the least contentious – unless you are in the very small minority of people who believe a word that our former PM Boris Johnson says, of course. Even those of us who no longer watch Question Time have probably seen the clip of the audience failing to raise its collective hand when asked by Fiona Bruce who thought that he hadn’t lied. Bearing in mind that, as she explained, the audience will have contained a majority of Tory supporters, it does not bode well for his chances should the outcome of the inquiry into whether he misled the House of Commons result in a by election. For those who missed the hearing, or who couldn’t bear to watch, Ian Dunt’s live blog is as good a substitute as you will get – and pretty sweary to boot. Hope you enjoy it.

For those of you with a more serious bent, the Institute for Government has an interesting view on the wider ramifications of the inquiry.

The other event to hit the headlines – the vote on what is being called the Windsor framework (i.e. the new agreement with the EU over the status of Northern Ireland) which “coincidentally” occurred during the Privileges Committee hearing into Johnson’s alleged misdeeds – was a very damp squib indeed, with only 29 votes against and 515 for. Johnson’s much vaunted rebellion was over almost before it had begun and bodes ill for him when the Committee’s recommendation, whatever it may be, comes to be debated by the House. Sunak has said he will give his MPs a free vote.

While these matters were grabbing the headlines, other important decisions were being taken with rather less publicity. Perhaps the most worrying for those of us who value our freedom to protest was the amendment to the PCSC Act 2022 passed by the House of Lords as part of the Public Order Bill. The amendment alters the requirement in Sections 73 and 74 of the Act for disruption and delay to be to “serious” before the police may take any action to “more than minor”, which the opposition amendment in the Lords sought to alter to “significant”. As Lord Coaker said during the debate:

“The debate today centres on thresholds. At what level should we restrict the right to protest, above the laws that we already have? We already have a number of laws that restrict the right to protest and allow us to deal with protests as they occur. Indeed, many chief constables, including the chief constable of Manchester, have asked why we do not use the existing legislation. Notwithstanding that, the Government have panicked and come forward with the Bill to try to deal with what they perceive as a problem.

“To make this real, I spent Sunday afternoon looking at various protests that have taken place around the country that, I contend, with a “more than minor” threshold would under the Bill be something that the police could arrest people for and stop. I ask everybody in this Chamber whether that is what people want, because I contend that it is what the ‘more than minor’ threshold will mean, rather than the ‘significant’ threshold that I am seeking to replace it with.

“Let me quickly go through some of these protests that made the headlines, which would be illegal under the Bill. The first is ‘Protest in Oxford blocks major road in both directions’. I suggest that, before a court, that may not be significant but is more than minor. Next we have a ‘No HS2’ protest. Some people may have more sympathy with that, but lots of protests have taken place with respect to that. ‘No nuclear power station’ protests have taken place in Suffolk. Are they covered by the Bill? They come under ‘more than minor’, and I contest that offences would be committed under the Bill. East Sussex residents protested outside the housing department at the treatment of a road and blocked access. That is an offence under the Bill, and certainly above the ‘more than minor’ threshold. Next is ‘Furious parents block road to protest poor enforcement of school street in north London’. I contend that that is an offence under the Bill. In the case of ‘Wellingborough: Protesters halt tree-felling plans’, they blocked the diggers and the cutters, which is not allowed under the Bill and is certainly more than minor. Two more are angry mothers blocking drivers over school drop-offs and unhappy Trowbridge residents turning out to block tree cutting. Under the Bill, some of these protests would be illegal and the police could potentially have the capacity to arrest.

We also saw the massive protests that took place last July when summer holidays were affected. Thousands of lorry drivers across the country blocked the M4, the M5, the M32 and the A38 in protest at the cost of fuel. My contention is that under the Bill that is more than minor and those protesting against the cost of fuel would be liable to arrest more than they are now. If you are blocking five or six motorways, that is certainly more than minor. What else did I find? Farmers blocked roads in protests; tractors were used in response to falling milk prices. That would not be allowed under the Bill. Blocking a major road is certainly more than minor. There is example after example showing that the Bill puts at risk the rights of people to protest. It puts at risk one of the democratic traditions of our country.”

Sadly, his wise words did not prevail and the amendment was passed by 231-220 votes.

As for the REUL Bill (Retained EU Law Bill for short), it has passed through the committee stage of the House of Lords largely untouched but has yet to pass the report stage, at which we may still hope that at the very least the sunset clause will be removed or extended beyond the end of 2023 as it currently stands. Those who would like to get a flavour of the chaos which may be caused by the passing of this Bill as it stands may like to read this debate from 23 February which highlights some of the areas potentially affected by the Act, such as the right to return to work after maternity leave, workers’ rights in relation to health and safety, the environment etc. Most worrying is the government’s unwillingness or inability to accept that in order properly to do the exercise it has set itself, a great deal more time will be required than the eight months left until the end of the year. It will be interesting, should the government get its way, to come back in a year’s time and see whether their promises to preserve maternity and employment rights given in this debate hold water.

Finally to the Illegal Migration Bill, which, as I write, is at the committee stage in the House of Commons. So far opposition amendments which would have required the government to provide safe and legal routes for child migrants, and to abide by the Modern Slavery Act as well as other amendments which would have mitigated its effects have all been defeated. The Tory government seems determined to cross the Rubicon of international law by breaching the 1951 Refugee Convention, no matter what the consequences for our international standing or human rights in the UK.

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