British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has said the right to protest is ‘not absolute’ ahead of legislation that would give police greater powers to deal with ‘disruptive’ demonstrations.
Downing Street said that amendments – which were approved last October – would be made to the Public Order Bill to allow police in England and Wales to effectively shut down protests before they become disruptive.
So-called “slow marching” where protestors force traffic to a near standstill was flagged as one such ‘disruptive’ protest tactic
Sunak said “the proposals would be tabled through an amendment to the public order bill, which will be debated in the House of Lords this week.”
While recognising that the right to protest was a “fundamental principle” of Democracy, he said, “We cannot have protests conducted by a small minority disrupting the lives of the ordinary public,” he said , adding, “It’s not acceptable and we’re going to bring it to an end.”
The changes will broaden the definition of the term “serious disruption”, as Downing Street seeks to tackle “gorilla tactics” mostly employed by environmental protestors.
This would mean that police “will not need to wait for disruption to take place and can shut protests down before chaos erupts”.
Challengers of the Bill have expressed their concern on its effects on the right of protest with Labour peer and former director of Liberty, Shami Chakrabarti, describing the move as “very troubling”
Chakrabarti said, “The definition of what counts as serious disruption is key to this bill because it is used as a justification for a whole range of new offences, stop and search powers and banning orders. If you set the bar too low, you are really giving the police a blank cheque to shut down dissent before it has even happened,”.
The topic of so-called exclusion zones, designed to ban demonstrations outside certain facilities, recently sparked controversy in the UK and internationally after a pro-life woman, Isabel Vaughan-Spruce, was arrested for praying silently near an abortion clinic.
ADF UK said Vaughan-Spruce was ”searched, arrested, interrogated, and charged on four counts for breaking the so-called “buffer zone” around a Birmingham abortion facility.”
The woman had “made clear to the arresting officers that she was not there to protest” but was placed under arrest after stating that she might be praying in her mind.
The 43 year old was charged with “protesting and engaging in an act that is intimidating to service users”.