Fighting our Government to protect our right to protest
By Green peer Baroness Jenny Jones
Since the last General Election gave the Conservative Party an 80+ seat majority of MPs in the Commons, they have pushed through some bad legislation. When these Bills come to the Lords, it’s our job to look at them line by line and try to improve them by carefully considered amendments. Which mostly the Tory-dominated Commons immediately throw out*.
However, on the rather nasty Policing Crime Sentencing and Courts Bill (PCSC), which is so huge it should be four different Bills, the Government gave us Peers the rare chance to remove the worst clauses. That’s because after the Bill had gone through the Commons, the Government introduced 18 pages of new amendments, thus bypassing MPs. Those changes related to protest and would ensure suppression of all reasonable dissent and is quite likely a Government attempt to distract us from the original Bill.
The amendments were a panicked Conservative reaction to protests by XR, Insulate Britain, and the pulling down of Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol. Labour’s very valid initial opposition to the Police Bill as it went through the Commons was based upon a failure to deal with women’s safety. But in the Lords, when the new amendments appeared, a clear assault on civil liberties, Labour dithered and sat on the fence. It seems that as a Government-in-waiting Labour didn’t want to look as if they were supporting lively protests. However, a campaign by thousands of people encouraged Labour to listen and do the right thing.
The process of business on Monday will be complicated by how the Government reacts and whether we can keep enough non-Conservative peers in the House until the important votes come through, but this is an attempt to explain what might happen in this crucial Bill.
It’s usually very hard to amend a Bill, because of that Government majority, but late amendments can be voted down and thrown out. Many peers saw the opportunity to make the already horrendously repressive PCSC Bill slightly better by doing just that, but Labour with its 160+ votes had to join in opposing them.
So they thought long and hard and came up with a cunning plan. In spite of the Bill’s huge size, the Government was insisting that the Lords finish it all by Monday 17th Jan. There was still a lot to do on the original Bill, plus the late-tabled amendments, all of which would mean a late night sitting** perhaps stretching well into the early hours of the next day.
It’s also important that we don’t lose sight of the original very bad bill by the later addition of the really very bad stuff. This attempt at Government distraction has made things more difficult.
Labour’s plan is to vote on some of the original Bill and the new amendments. Some of us would have liked all the new amendments to be voted down, but time pressure makes that very hard. First, Labour decided to have only eleven votes. They will call votes on issues in the original Bill, like a ban on assemblies and noisy protests, but also on issues not in the original. These are issues that normally we’d all like to see included, such as making misogyny a crime, being able to protest around Parliament, spiking of drinks, or insisting on a duty of candour for police; they are all good things. But votes take time and as we won’t start debating until after 3pm, we have to make choices. The Lords can either eat up time on the ‘issue raising’ work we normally do, or seize our chance to vote down some of the most draconian legislation ever proposed.
So it will be, mid to late evening, when we’ll get to the Government’s protest-suppressing amendments. After a lot of campaigning by the Green Party and campaigning groups, Labour will join those of us who want these voted down, but sadly only on three of them: to be able to protest about new roads and major transport works (eg HS2), to continue to be able to lock on at protests, and to prevent suspicionless stop and search. If the Government wants to insist on those, they will have to bring them back later in the year in a new Bill.
If we in the Lords amend any of the Government amendments, rather than just vote them down, the Government can take out those changes in the Commons, put the originals back in, and pass them into law.
Whatever happens in the House of Lords tomorrow (Monday 17 January) it will be a bad day for our human rights and civil liberties here in the UK.
*Controversial Bills usually start in the Commons by going through various Stages, then get passed to the Lords, who try to improve them. Improved Bills are then passed back to the Commons, who accept or refuse the improvements, sending the Bill back to the Lords to accept, in process called Ping Pong. Mostly, we accept because the Commons is the elected Chamber. Very occasionally we dig our heels in, but it has to be because of something very important, for example, legal breaches.
**The Lords is a so-called ‘part time House’ and business often starts mid afternoon. That means to get the Bills through in a reasonable amount of days we often sit well past 10pm. It’s a stupid system, based on the assumption that peers can go to their proper jobs in the morning, have a nice lunch, then do the law-making in the afternoon.