House of Lords Speech on the Public Order Bill

My Lords, it is very cold in this House; I wonder what has happened to the heating. It certainly has a chilling effect on debate.

I am not a lawyer like the noble Lord, Lord Sandhurst, nor a policeman like the noble Lord, Lord Paddick. I am driven to take part in the debate because I have become increasingly concerned at the wide powers of surveillance and control being claimed by Governments in the name of public order and national security—powers that, in their structure though not yet in the scale of their implementation, resemble those in countries such as Russia and China.

I recall that George Orwell wrote in 1939 about

“whether the ordinary people in countries like England grasp the difference between democracy and despotism well enough to want to defend their liberties. One can’t tell until they see themselves menaced in some quite unmistakeable manner.”

People feel menaced in different ways; I myself have been woken up by one such menacing experience. I hope also to bring some historical perspective to the topic we are discussing.

The traditional aim of public order Acts, starting in 1936, was to prevent violent clashes on the streets. A famous common-law precedent was Wise v Dunning in 1902. Wise, a rabid anti-Papist, whose habit of speaking and dressing in a manner offensive to Catholics in Liverpool had led to fights at previous meetings, was bound over to keep the peace. The principle was clear enough: freedom of speech, procession and assembly must not be carried to the point where it caused violence on the streets.

As most noble Lords have pointed out, we already have plenty of Acts designed to prevent disruptive behaviour. Why do we need more? As the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, said, it is not because many of these measures have been demanded by the police. The noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, suggested an answer that I find extremely convincing. This Bill brings peaceful, if inconvenient, protest and incitement to violence and terrorism into the same legal framework, implying in principle that the first is as culpable as the second. This argument is used to extend the powers of the state in dangerous ways, which have been charted only in despotic systems. That is why I talk about an Orwellian creep and cited George Orwell at the beginning.

I take up just two matters from Parts 2 and 3 of the Bill, consequential on this false identification between peaceful protest and violence and terrorism. The first, which other noble Lords have alluded to, is the extension of the police’s stop and search powers. In the past, stop and search powers have been used to prevent only the most serious offending, such as serious violence or reasonable suspicion of terrorism—for example, if people were suspected of carrying knives, guns or explosives. This was seriously open to racial discrimination and was highly controversial, but I can see a justification for the power itself. However, the Bill would extend the same powers of stop and search to the protest context. 

Someone can be stopped and searched for being suspected of being linked, however peripherally, to non-violent purposes or conduct. To stop and search someone suspected of carrying a bomb is one thing; to stop and search someone suspected of carrying a bicycle lock seems to me, to put it mildly, disproportionate—and, in fact, mad.

This leads me to my second point, to which I can hardly do justice in a short speech, namely the extremely worrying spread of arrest and detention where there is no reasonable suspicion that the person may be involved in proscribed behaviour, or where there is merely a balance of probabilities—I want to come back to that term—that they might be.

Clause 11 creates a new suspicion-less stop and search power, whereby the police will have the power to specify that, in a particular locality and for a particular period of time, they do not need to have reasonable suspicion—in other words, an objective basis for suspicion based on evidence—that a protest-related offence will be committed, before stopping and searching people for a prohibited object. This is similar to powers contained in anti-terrorist legislation. Let me quote from the public information leaflet issued to explain Schedule 3 of the Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Act 2019:

“Unlike most police powers, the power to stop, question, search and, if necessary detain persons does not require any suspicion … The purpose is to determine whether a person appears to be, or to have been, engaged in Hostile … activity.”

Leave to one side the draconian powers being asserted here; it is surely fantastic to apply the same reasoning and powers to someone who might or might not be carrying a paintbrush.

Almost as bad as suspicionless stop and search is Clause 20, which authorises serious disruption prevention orders. Many noble Lords have talked about these. They allow a court to ban a person from attending demonstrations and protests for up to two years, not on conviction of any offence but on a balance of probabilities that, on at least two occasions in the previous five years, they have carried out activities related to a protest or caused or contributed to someone else carrying out a protest. Failure to comply with SDPO conditions is a criminal offence, subject to 51 weeks’ imprisonment.

The balance of probabilities means that the court must think that it is 51% likely that the person concerned has carried out such activities. If it thinks that it is only 49% likely, they get off free. What sort of evidence is needed to make that kind of calculation? I would be grateful if that could be explained. The essential point is that Clause 20 allows standards of proof appropriate in civil cases to be used for imposing criminal sanctions, such as electronic tagging, on individuals convicted of no criminal offence.

Any serious analyst of these measures would need to trace not only the growth of novel forms of protest, which is acknowledged, but the way that concepts such as dangerousness and mens rea—guilty mind—have penetrated into the heart of our criminal justice system, creating a large and growing area of law in which you do not have to have done anything criminal to have been deprived of large chunks of your liberty.

It would be very difficult to amend the Bill to make it compliant with the European Convention on Human Rights. I therefore agree with those noble Lords who want to reject Parts 2 and 3 and seriously amend Part 1.