Concerning new policing laws will hand too much power to the home secretary and give authorities “oppressive” rights to quash protests, a cross-party group of MPs and peers has warned.
A report published on Tuesday said it was also unacceptable to give the home secretary the power to define “serious disruption”, or to increase prison sentences for non-violent crimes related to protest.
The plans are contained within the wide-ranging Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which is currently undergoing parliamentary scrutiny after being backed by MPs in March.
It has sparked a wave of demonstrations, including some that resulted in vandalism and violence against police officers, amid accusations that the government was stifling the right to protest.
Labour MP Harriet Harman, who chairs the human rights committee, said protest was the “essence” of British democracy and allowed the public to literally make their voices heard.
“The government proposals to allow police to restrict ‘noisy’ protests are oppressive and wrong,” she added.
“Noisy protests are the exercises of the lungs of a healthy democracy. They should not be treated as an inconvenience by those in power.”
Ms Harman said police already had access to “perfectly adequate” powers for protests, and that demonstrations themselves should be given explicit statutory protection in the law.
The Joint Committee on Human Rights said that peaceful protests had to be “seen and, crucially in this context, heard” to fulfil the European Convention on Human Rights.
“A power that would allow the police to move the location of a demonstration, limit its numbers or duration, or even to silence certain shouts or chants, in order to suppress noise is therefore of significant concern,” it added.
Members said interference with the rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly can only be justified by a “pressing social need”, or “legitimate aims” such as to prevent disorder, preserve public safety and protect the rights of others.
“It is not clear to us what right the public has to be free from ‘serious unease’ that might result from peaceful and otherwise lawful protest,” the committee added.
“Despite receiving a large number of submissions addressing part three of the bill, we did not receive a single piece of written evidence welcoming the changes it proposes.”
The report found that political rhetoric had been “downplaying the importance of the right to peaceful protest and treating it as an inconvenience”, and that public authorities should be reminded of their obligation to “refrain from interfering unlawfully” with the right to demonstrate.
The draft bill would create a power for the home secretary to clarify the meaning of “serious disruption” in law, for the purpose of protest restrictions, without parliamentary scrutiny.
“It raises the risk that a future home secretary could respond to particular protests to which the government objects and specify those as falling within the ‘serious disruption’ triggers,” the report said.
“It is vitally important that peaceful protests are policed on the basis of the harm they cause, not their political content.”
The committee also called for changes to proposals to lower the threshold for prosecuting protesters for breaching police conditions, saying they “increased the risk of peaceful protesters being arrested or prosecuted for innocent mistakes”.
Members said the government should omit part of the bill that would, for the first time, allow police to impose restrictions on protests by a single person.
The Joint Committee on Human Rights found a proposed new criminal offence of “intentionally or recklessly causing public nuisance” – which would be punishable by up to 10 years in prison – was unclear and risked criminalising some forms of peaceful protest.
It called for the wording of the law to be changed to ensure it required “serious harm” to be caused to the public, and to make non-violent protest a defence.
The human rights group Liberty said the bill followed heavy restrictions on protest during the coronavirus pandemic and would hand police “the power to choose where, when and how people can protest”.
Its policy and campaigns manager Rosalind Comyn said: “Giving police even more powers to control and limit our right to protest is incredibly dangerous. We urge those in power to listen to the warnings about what this bill would mean for the future of civil liberties in the UK – and to oppose it at every chance they get.”
Campaign group Big Brother Watch called the report “damning” and called for MPs to remove the “draconian” protest powers from the bill.
Ministers have argued that “recent changes in tactics” used by Extinction Rebellion protesters, including gluing themselves to buildings and vehicles, have highlighted gaps in existing public order laws from 1986.
However, the Joint Committee on Human Rights said it had seen no evidence that any gaps justified plans to make noise a threshold for imposing restrictions on demonstrations.
The committee said that national police leaders did not routinely collect data on the use of current powers, and there was no indication they were being used to their utmost extent or proving ineffective.
It found that neither the police nor a key HM Inspectorate of Constabulary report on protest powers called for the ability to restrict protests based on noise.
“We also note that the larger and more well-supported a demonstration, the louder it is likely to be,” the report added. “Restrictions on noise could disproportionately impact the demonstrations that have the greatest public backing.”
It warned that the proposed law would require police officers to interpret vague wording such as “intensity” and “serious unease” to trigger noise provisions, which could lead to bias against different groups or cause “arbitrary or discriminatory” enforcement.
The report also rejected arguments over the costs incurred for policing large protests, saying: “The fundamental right to protest should not be restricted simply because its exercise is too expensive.”
In total, the committee called for five clauses to be removed from the bill, five to be significantly changed and the addition of a statutory protection for peaceful protest.
A Home Office spokesperson said: “The right to protest is a cornerstone of our democracy and our proposed measures are in line with human rights legislation and in no way impinge on the right to protest.“