The Minister for Security (Tom Tugendhat)
With permission, Mr Deputy Speaker, I shall make a statement on new Government measures to tackle unacceptable behaviour at protests.
In the aftermath of the horrific attacks on 7 October, many people took to the streets to make their views heard. Many did so peacefully and respectfully. I had the great privilege of marching alongside many people, including some in this House, against antisemitism on the streets of both Manchester and London. Sadly, those protests do not tell the whole story.
Over the past few months, we have all seen disturbing and distressing examples of hateful abuse, of serious damage, and of law-abiding citizens being intimidated and prevented from going about their daily life. The right to protest is fundamental to our democracy, but when we see people hurling racist abuse, desecrating national memorials of great significance to our country, or taking flares to marches to cause disruption and fear, the only reasonable response is outrage and disgust. Tolerating these actions would be radicalising in itself. This Government will not stand by and allow a small minority to incite hatred and commit crimes, undermining our proud tradition of peaceful protest.
Today, the Government have announced a package of measures to put a stop to this criminality for good. Protesters have for too long been able to claim in law that protest is a “reasonable excuse” for criminal behaviour. Blocking roads, preventing ambulances from getting through and stopping people from getting to work or visiting loved ones are breathtakingly selfish acts. The British public certainly do not see an acceptable justification for that level of disruption to their life. That is why we are removing that defence for relevant crimes. Protesters will no longer be able to cite the right to protest as a reasonable excuse to get away with disruptive offences, such as blocking roads.
Through the package that we are announcing today, we will crack down on those who climb on war memorials. In recent months, we have seen cases where individuals have broken away from large protests and scaled national monuments. War memorials belong to all of us. They are the altars of our national grief, and it is clearly not acceptable to disrespect them in that way; it is an assault on the memory of so many who gave their life for our freedom and to defend our nation. Attacking our national memorials goes beyond the legitimate exercise of free speech. We must not give those who commit criminal acts at protests the ability to get away with it by simply hiding their identity.
Once the legislation comes into force, the police will have new powers to arrest protesters at certain protests who wear face coverings to conceal their identity. Those who shout racist abuse and extremist rhetoric will no longer be able to hide from justice. We are also protecting the public by putting an end to people bringing flares on marches. Flares have been used during large-scale protests, and have been fired at police officers, posing significant risk of injury. A new offence will ban the possession of flares, fireworks and any other pyrotechnics at protests. Anyone who flouts the new rules will face serious consequences, including up to three months in jail and a £1,000 fine for those who climb on war memorials.
The changes that we have announced today build on the legislation that we introduced last year to help the police tackle disruption from protests. We criminalised interfering with key national infrastructure through section 7 of the Public Order Act 2023. Since we passed the Act last year, the Metropolitan police have made more than 600 arrests to minimise the disruption caused by Just Stop Oil. On Tuesday, the Home Secretary met policing leaders to thank them for their work, and to encourage the use of all existing powers at their disposal, as well as these new measures, to maintain order at protests. I am very grateful to frontline officers across the country for their efforts and successes in keeping the British people safe during an immensely challenging period. I know that policing these events on a regular basis is both complex and demanding. It takes officers away from crucial work preventing crime and protecting vulnerable people in our communities.
As I have made clear, freedom of expression is vital to our democracy, and this House champions it every day. People must be able to speak without fear, and have their right to peaceful protest protected, but those freedoms and rights are not absolute, for very good reason. There is no freedom to commit violence or intimidation, or to harass others. This country has laws against vocally supporting terror organisations for a very good reason, and last month, the Government proscribed Hizb ut-Tahrir as a terrorist organisation. That group actively celebrated the 7 October terrorist attacks in Israel that led to the rape and murder of many, many people. It is an organisation that has poisoned minds for far too long.
We must, and we will, continue to stand with communities who feel threatened, and ensure their safety wherever they live and work. The Government are sticking to the plan to give police the powers that they need to crack down on crime and keep our streets safe. We will never tolerate hateful, dangerous or intimidating behaviour. We will always put the decent, law-abiding majority first. We will do what is right and fair. I commend this statement to the House.