The Home Office warned that protest banning orders now backed by Priti Patel would not work, MPs have been told.
The new orders would empower police to put electronic tags on disruptive demonstrators and restrict where they go, who they meet and what they do in person or online, even if they have not committed a crime.
“Serious disruption prevention orders” are among a raft of controversial police powers in the new Public Order Bill, which are being brought to parliament for a second time after being defeated by the House of Lords in January.
Other proposed measures include making “locking-on” – where campaigners lock themselves to parts of buildings – a criminal offense and allowing the suspicionless stop and search of protesters for items that could be used for that purpose.
The bill would create offenses of interfering with key national infrastructure or obstructing major transport works, punishable by imprisonment.
But opposition MPs said the prime minister would fall foul of the proposed law himself if he fulfilled his vow to “lie down in front of the bulldozers” to prevent a new runway being constructed at Heathrow Airport.
Backing the bill in the House of Commons on Monday, the home secretary said it would combat a “rise in criminal, disruptive and self-defeating tactics from a supremely selfish minority”.
Ms Patel said the orders were to target protesters who were “determined to repeatedly inflict disruption on the public”, citing groups including Extinction Rebellion and Insulate Britain.
Yvette Cooper, the shadow home secretary, pointed to a HM Inspectorate of Constabulary report commissioned by Ms Patel on protest powers.
She said that the Home Office itself had argued against the creation of protest banning orders and was quoted by the watchdog saying they were “unlikely to work as hoped”.
The report, published in March 2021, included a Home Office response saying that persistent environmental activists who influence others to commit crimes were “undeterred by the threat of arrest” and ends.
“This proposal [of protest banning orders] essentially takes away a person’s right to protest and we believe banning people from attending peaceful protests would very likely lead to a legal challenge,” the Home Office continued.
“It appears unlikely that a court would issue a high penalty to someone who is peacefully protesting. Consequently, we believe it unlikely the measure would work as hoped.”
Priti Patel grilled by police officers over pay
Ms Cooper also told MPs that police officers were quoted in the same report as being divided on the prospect of new powers, with some saying existing laws were sufficient but “the ability to implement them is the challenge due to lack of resources”.
The home secretary said that HM Inspectorate of Constabulary “argued that stop and search powers would be an effective tool for police in this case”.
But the watchdog’s report said: “Arguing against the proposal for a new stop and search power, an officer stated that ‘a little inconvenience is more acceptable than a police state’. We agree with this sentiment.”
Ms Cooper told MPs that existing laws and powers, such as court injunctions, could already be used to limit disruptive protests.
“This bill won’t make it easier to prevent serious disruption,” the Labor MP added.
“It will instead target peaceful protesters and passers-by who aren’t disrupting anyone or anything at all… the government is extending powers normally made available for serious violence and terrorism to peaceful protests.”
Ms Cooper questioned why the government had not waited for another raft of controversial protest powers brought in by the previous Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act to be implemented before “coming back for more”.
The shadow home secretary proposed an amendment against the second reading of the Public Order Bill, saying it will not prevent serious disruption to essential services and “includes instead measures that replicate existing powers, includes powers that are too widely drawn and which erode historic freedoms of peaceful protest”.
Ms Patel said the measures “are not about clamping down on freedom of speech”, adding: “The protesters involved in these types of examples that I have presented have better routes, alternative routes to make their voices heard and they know that.”
The bill was expected to pass its second reading in the House of Commons and go into committee scrutiny.
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.