The right to protest

Thank you for contacting me about protests and the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill (PCSC Bill).

I understand your concerns about the proposed new powers to deal better with protests and thank you for outlining your views on this issue.

As I have made very clear, freedom of assembly and freedom of expression are vital rights that I wholeheartedly support, and I can reassure you that the Government is clear that the right of an individual to express their opinion and protest is a cornerstone of our democratic society. 

I would like to make clear that under no circumstances do I believe that protests should become violent. The rights to a peaceful protest do not extend to harassment, intimidating behaviour or serious disruption to public order. 

Of course, the responsibility for the maintenance of public order lies with the police, who have a range of powers to manage protests. How they deploy their powers and the tactics they use are rightly an operational matter for the police but I am pleased that we live in a country where policing is by consent.

The issue at hand relates to the balance between the rights of a protestor and the rights of individuals to go about their daily business. There have been examples where protests have caused unjustifiable disruption and distress to other citizens. For example, some of the scenes we see from climate protesters are concerning.  The PCSC Bill will ensure that essential services can continue unabated by disruptive protests.

The measures in the PCSC Bill are not about stopping or clamping down on right to protest but ensuring the police can better manage highly disruptive protests and maintain the balance I have outlined. 

It is the case that when using these powers, or existing public order powers, the police must act within the law. Importantly, the police must be able to demonstrate that their use of powers are necessary and proportionate. It is also clear that the police must act compatibly with human rights, in particular Article 10 (freedom of expression) and Article 11 (freedom of association).  

I am aware that much has been said regarding the proposed public nuisance offence. As you may be aware, Clause 59 gives effect to recommendations made by the Law Commission in their July 2015 Report on 'Simplification of the Criminal Law: Public Nuisance and Outraging Public Decency'. The report stated that the common law offence of public nuisance should be replaced by a statutory offence covering any conduct which endangers the life, health, property or comfort of a section of the public or obstructs them in the exercise of their rights. You can find the Law Commission report on this issue at the following link - https://s3-eu-west-2.amazonaws.com/lawcom-prod-storage-11jsxou24uy7q/up….

Importantly, the new statutory offence of public nuisance will cover the same conduct as the existing common law offence of public nuisance. 

It is completely right that the police should have the powers to intervene in exceptional cases where the noise generated by a protest is such that it is injurious to others. I also welcomed ministers' reassurances that the police would only impose such conditions on noise where necessary and proportionate and where they have fully considered protesters' freedoms of expression and assembly. It is therefore extremely disappointing that Peers voted to remove these provisions from the PCSC Bill that would have ensured the wider public were not unduly affected by the most disruptive and noisy protest activity.

I fully understand your strong feelings on this issue and you were right to ensure I was made aware of these. While we may not agree, I hope this response has outlined clearly why I am in favour of the changes in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill relating to the management of protests.