Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill DebateFull Debate: Read Full Debate
Lord TreesMain Page: Lord Trees (Crossbench - Life peer)
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My Lords, I join others in welcoming the noble Lord, Lord Sandhurst, to the House and I look forward to engaging with him in the weeks and years to come. I have considerable concerns about large parts of the Bill which seem to be designed to attack hard-won human rights. I am also particularly concerned that the Bill is empowering Ministers to make laws without any parliamentary approval. That seems to happen only in dictatorships; maybe that is where we are heading.
The Bill would criminalise Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities without explaining why the Government have failed to provide adequate sites for them. The Government also have in their sights trade unions, workers and peace marchers, who could all be criminalised because their protests are deemed to be noisy and disruptive. Companies can cause disruption by moving production and the Government say that is good and fine, but if workers protest about loss of jobs or homes and cuts to their wages, that is considered to be disruptive, and the full might of the state is unleashed upon them. Did someone ever say that the laws passed by Parliament are even-handed? If so, I would love to see the evidence.
This Bill also creates distrust between people and the police by requiring police commissioners to interpret the new noise triggers embedded in the Bill. People protest because Parliament and Governments are not responsive to their concerns. Whether they are civil rights, feminist, environmental, LGBT or anti-war demonstrators, people are asking to be included in the fabric of society. They ask for dignity and rights and draw attention to the destructive practices of corporations and abuses of power by the state. Rather than building an inclusive society, this Bill would criminalise people of conscience and deprive them of jobs, mortgages, credit cards, travel visas and other things that many of us take for granted.
This week, the good people of Liverpool protested about an arms fair to be held in the city in October. It is not criminal, apparently, for companies to market weapons of mass destruction near schools, homes and hospitals, but under this Bill it would be criminal for protestors to object to such a deadly trade being conducted in their neighbourhood. Obviously, the Government are concerned that corporations should not be deprived of their profits, but people can be deprived of their lives and there would be restraints on demonstrating about it.
So many of our rights are derived from protests. In 1968 the Ford sewing machinists organised strikes and protests to demand equality. They drew attention to legalised discrimination, which paved the way for the Equal Pay Act 1970. Under this Bill, they would all be criminalised. I remember demonstrating against racial discrimination. I made plenty of noise and caused disruption too, so presumably I would also have been criminalised and would not be standing here. Maybe this is the aim of the Bill.
The CND marches created social awareness of the destructive power of nuclear weapons and a climate for international treaties and bans, yet this Bill could criminalise similar protests. It would return us to the era of the Tolpuddle martyrs, when people protesting about wage cuts and workers’ rights were criminalised, prosecuted, silenced and exiled. The power of the state would be, once again, unleased against the likes of the Jarrow marches, seeking jobs and an end to persecution by the state.
As a result of protests, we have a better and more inclusive society. This Bill would reduce the possibilities for emancipatory change. In my final words about the consequences of such a Bill, I quote from President John Kennedy:
“Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.”
Is that what the Government are trying to achieve?
My Lords, I begin by joining the welcome to my noble friend Lord Sandhurst. We are delighted to have him among our colleagues on these Benches.
I thank the various people who have briefed me for tonight, in particular the union UNISON, the Trades Union Congress and the Quakers—a trio of very socially responsible bodies. One of the things they have drawn to my attention is a recent Court of Appeal judgment, where it was held that:
“In a free society all must be able to hold and articulate views, especially views with which many disagree. Free speech is a hollow concept if one is only able to express ‘approved’ or majoritarian views. It is the intolerant, the instinctively authoritarian, who shout down or worse suppress views with which they disagree.”
I think that is a very useful start for where we are going.
To an extent, the Minister will have a huge amount of work clarifying matters in this legislation, because what is not clarified will of course end up in the Court of Appeal. If we do not make it clear, it will be clarified by judges, and fortunately—I hope—they will bear in mind such documents as the European Convention on Human Rights and others which have guided judicial findings to interpret this Bill.
One of the difficulties we have—which the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, alluded to—is that there are some people at the moment who deliberately exploit an anarchic way of conducting protest, not because they believe in the protest but because they believe in trying to get the consequences of the anarchy to panic society into taking decisions which could well turn out to not be very wise.
Having said that, the trade union movement welcomes the protection for emergency workers and looks forward to finalising and refining this legislation, so that it deals comprehensively with a body of workers who have had enormous amounts of problems.
I think the noble Lord, Lord Sikka, has left us, but he mentioned Orgreave. If we are actually interested in looking at the consequences of protest, there is a protest that could well do with some official looking at.
The definition of nuisance is a very movable feast, and we have to look very carefully at the borderline between what I would call peaceful protest and noisy and deliberate protest. As has been said, the whole nature of protest is often noisy. I have been on demonstrations in my time, and it is a very common thing—it is a sort of crowd coalescer—that you will have a slogan and you shout it out and it has a meaning for the people there. Most people who go on a demonstration in the classical sense are there because they have a reason for being there. They do not think, “What shall I do today? I know, I will go and demonstrate.” They are there because they are either in favour of something or against something, but they feel strongly about it.
If you bring in a penalty, as has been mentioned, of 10 years for disturbing flowers on a war memorial, it will never be imposed. It is as simple as that. It would be foolish legislation because no magistrate would ever impose that sort of punishment. I suspect we will spend considerable time looking at the Bill and dealing with its detail, but I hope, at the end, we will have a better Bill, because there are good parts of it, but there are also parts that need very careful examination.