Norfolk MP James Wild: Parliament Public Order Bill tackles Just Stop Oil and Extinction Rebellion disruptive protest issue
After the Queen’s speech unveiled 34 bills, one of the first pieces of legislation off the blocks in Parliament this week was the Public Order Bill which aims to restore the balance between the fundamental democratic right to protest peacefully with the rights of the public to go about their lives without serious disruption or harm.
The new powers are focused on tackling the most serious and dangerous disruption, such as instances where ambulances were blocked. It is the impact on others that is crucial here – thanks to the dangerous actions of protestors there was disruption at oil terminals meaning people locally could not get fuel recently.
Just Stop Oil’s action cost the police £5.9 million in recent months and Extinction Rebellion’s protests in 2019 cost the public purse £37 million. We’ve even had protests stopping a free democratic press by blocking printing and distribution of newspapers.
So it will become a criminal offence to “lock-on” to busy roads, buildings, scaffolding or vehicles which can not only be dangerous – such as protestors who attached themselves to highly flammable tankers – but incredibly disruptive. There will be improved security of transport networks, and oil terminals with new offences of obstructing major transport works and interfering with key national infrastructure.
Protest is vital in a democracy – we have a rich history of it in our country and contrary to some commentary, these new powers will not ban all protests. But the right to protest is not without limits and the measures Parliament is scrutinising would prevent the most serious and damaging disruption to people’s lives and these ever more extreme tactics.
Indeed, the Home Secretary spoke about the equivalent of training camps where groups come together where they hoard and harbour equipment. Often those who cause such misery for other people are repeat offenders so courts will be given powers to stop them from inflicting further serious disruption on the public.
These measures are part of a wider agenda to help tackle crime including recruiting 20,000 new police officers. Those plans are on schedule with Norfolk having an extra 200 already.
As well as tackling crime it is important that justice is seen to be done so I have been troubled by recent murder cases where defendants have refused to come to court for their sentencing hearings. They hide away in their cells rather than face their victims and their families and hear the often-harrowing impact statements.
This is effectively further abusing the victims and, in the House of Commons this week, I called on Ministry of Justice ministers to introduce changes to give judges the power to make them attend for murder, rape, and other serious cases.
Clearly, there may be instances where a defendant could be incredibly disruptive in court so I also urged the government to consider giving judges powers to increase custodial sentences in such circumstances.
The government is now looking at potential changes including whether this should be an aggravating factor for consideration in sentencing. Victims’ interests must always be at the heart of our justice system.