Policing / Protest rights

Public Order Act – what do you need to know?

Posted on 18 May 2023

What is the Public Order Act?  

The Public Order Act is a new piece of legislation that, among other things, brings in severe new curbs on the right to protest – and hands a raft of new powers to the police.

The Act resurrects dangerous anti-protest proposals already thrown out of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts (PCSC) Act that were loudly rejected by the people and Parliament.

By expanding stop and search, introducing protest banning orders, and a range of new criminal offences it strikes at the very heart of protest, and could potentially criminalise anyone who takes to the streets to make their voices heard.

What happened as the Bill went through parliament?  

Along with other organisations campaigning on the Bill, we were successful in limiting some of the most harmful measures in the Bill:

  • Serious Disruption Prevention Orders (SDPOs) can no longer be given to people who haven’t been convicted of an offence
  • SDPOs on conviction can only be given to those who have been convicted of two criminal offences or breaches of injunctions instead of one
  • People given SDPOs can no longer be subject to 24/7 electronic monitoring.

We also successfully threw out the Government’s attempts to introduce late-stage amendments, which would have allowed the police to impose conditions restricting protests before the protest had even begun if they could pose a ‘more than minor hindrance’ to everyday activities, and which would have further narrowed the ‘reasonable excuse’ defence for protest.

In addition to cross-party parliamentarians across the Houses, many spoke out against the Bill, including five UN Special Rapporteurs, the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, the Director of Public Prosecutions, former senior police advisors, health workers, environmental organisations, 20 faith leaders, and dozens of civil society organisations. CIVICUS downgraded the UK’s ranking in its civic freedoms index. Together with Greenpeace, we organised a zombie stunt to hand in a joint petition signed by 300,000 people.

Bringing measures back from the dead (again) 

This month, the Government tabled a new draft statutory instrument (SI) to bring some of the amendments – that the House of Lords voted out of the Public Order Bill – back from the dead.

These measures will introduce a new definition of ‘serious disruption’, so that the police will be given the power to impose restrictions on protests if they think that it could result in “a hindrance that is more than minor to, the carrying out of day-to-day activities”.

The police will also be given powers to consider the cumulative impact of protests when imposing restrictions – even if they are not organised by the same person.

This SI will have to be approved by a motion of both houses of Parliament. However, statutory instruments usually receive less parliamentary scrutiny because they are not primary legislation, and are highly likely to pass. The Government, having failed to bring in more restrictions during the course of the Public Order Bill, is seeking a second bite of the cherry – evading scrutiny and accountability.

What happens next?  

Now, the Public Order Act has received Royal Assent – meaning it has become law, and the measures in it will shortly come into force if they have not already.

Despite the changes we secured as a result of relentless campaigning against the Act, we remain firm in our position that this law must be scrapped together, and will continue standing in solidarity with social movements in resisting it and all anti-protest legislation.

The work does not stop here – we encourage you all to keep making your voices heard.

We must continue to protest

Protest is not banned – but the introduction of more anti-protest measures means it’s crucial for people protesting to know their rights.

At Liberty, we’re working hard to provide up-to-date information on how the new law will affect your rights when you protest.

We have a proud tradition of standing up for the right to protest, and with a government determined to strip away ordinary people’s right to make their voices heard, that’s never been more important.

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