Labour votes against anti-protest bill – but it passes by majority of 96 votes

Elliot Chappell
© UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor

The House of Commons has passed, by a majority of 96 with 359 MPs voting in favour and 263 against, controversial legislation proposed by the government that would hand police tougher powers to crack down on protesters.

Labour voted against the police, crime, sentencing and courts bill at its second reading tonight and attempted to stop its passage. The opposition party said the bill fails to tackle violence against women and girls and restricts the right to protest.

Commenting on the murder of Sarah Everard earlier this month, which sparked a public outcry, David Lammy warned this evening that “we must not make the mistake of thinking this horrific incident of violence against women is a one-off”.

“The press may not report it but women of all backgrounds, from all parts of the country and of all ages are killed every week,” he added. “In 2016, 125 women in the UK were killed by men. In 2017, the number was 147. It was 147 again in 2018.

“Over the past decade, 1,425 women have been murdered in the UK. That’s roughly one women every three days. And it’s not only murder. All kinds of violence against women are endemic in our country.”

Lammy told MPs that a “decade of cuts, court closures and failed ideology is letting women down”, highlighting that half of the courts in England and Wales closed between 2010 and 2019 and that just 1.4% of rapes end in conviction.

“Instead of tackling violence against women, the government has prioritised giving the police powers to prohibit the fundamental freedoms of protest that the British public hold dear,” the Shadow Justice Secretary declared.

The proposed legislation contains provisions that would grant police powers to curb any protest that would “result in serious disruption to the activities of an organisation” or have a “relevant impact on persons in the vicinity”.

Lammy reminded MPs of peaceful protests carried out over the last hundred years, including those from the suffragette and anti-apartheid movements, and asked whether the Secretary of State thought those activists should have been arrested.

“What about society has changed exactly that means the police need more powers to control protests today than they did yesterday?” the Shadow Secretary of State for Justice asked the government minister.

“What about the images of police tackling a mourning women to the floor last weekend makes him think the police do not have enough as it stands?” He said the government “dislikes Black Lives Matter” and “hates Extinction Rebellion”.

The Labour frontbencher concluded by describing the proposed legislation as a “missed opportunity” to take action on male violence against women and girls. “Today, Labour is standing up for women by voting against this bill,” he said.

Labour tabled an amendment to the bill that would have stopped the police, crime, sentencing and courts bill at its second reading tonight, but MPs voted down the move from the opposition party by 359 votes to 225.

Angela Eagle argued today that the bill would place “draconian limits” on the right to protest, including on the method, location and noise. “Apparently demonstrators are henceforth to be seen but not heard,” she added.

The MP for Wallasey went on to describe as “ugly” the “complete absence from this bill of any coherent attempt to protect the freedom of women and girls to live their lives free of harassment and violence”.

Labour MP Clive Lewis told parliament that he would “stand up with protesters, irrelevant of the laws passed by this place” and urged “anyone who values their democratic rights must get organised and fight back” if the legislation is passed.

Diana Johnson welcomed provisions in the bill such as whole-life orders for premeditated child murder and ending automatic release of dangerous and sex offenders, but said she would vote against due to the impact on the right to protest.

“The bill attacks on a permanent basis the fundamental human right of peaceful assembly, banning gatherings or a single-person protest on the grounds of “noise” or annoyance” and that’s deeply troubling,” the Labour MP explained.

She said that the legislation should do more to tackle violence against women and girls and told MPs today that the government announcement promising increased street lighting and funding for CCTV “does not cut the mustard”.

Commenting on the absence of measures in the bill to tackle male violence, Labour’s Bell Ribeiro-Addy said it “was not designed to address fundamental problems; it is designed to infringe on our civil liberties, it is designed to prosecute culture wars”.

“Ministers are fooling no one when their default response is to talk about tougher sentences and more police. Tougher sentences are useless if the perpetrator can reasonably expect never to be convicted,” the Streatham MP told the Commons.

Figures show that 99% of rapes reported to police in England and Wales in the year ending March 2020 resulted in no legal proceedings against the alleged attackers, and conviction levels are at their lowest on record.

Controversy surrounding the bill heightened following the violent mishandling of a vigil for Sarah Everard by the Metropolitan Police. Everard disappeared earlier this month and a serving police officer has been charged with her murder.

Nottingham East MP Nadia Whittome told those watching this afternoon that the bill represents “the biggest assault on our right and freedom to protest in recent history” and voiced her reasons for marching with protesters in recent days.

“We’re sick of male violence, we’re sick of male violence whether it’s at the hands of the state, our partners, our family members or strangers,” she explained to MPs. “And we march because some people don’t survive male violence.”

She added: “[The bill] hands unaccountable power to the police. The same police who were forcing women to the ground at Clapham Common on Saturday night.”

Shadow Home Secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds said on Monday that government representatives had “not even bothered to reply” to Labour enquiries about measures to guard against ‘sex for rent’ whereby landlords exploit tenants.

Priti Patel responded by telling the Commons that she was not aware of the letter from Labour, nor the cancellation of a ‘work stream’ on the issue, which was set up by Conservative MP Amber Rudd when she was Home Secretary.

Conservative MPs largely avoided the points raised by Labour on protest and the failure to address violence against women and girls, instead emphasising other measures such as increased sentencing for those who assault emergency workers.

But the government has seen opposition from among its own benches on the bill. “Freedom of speech is an important right in our democracy, however annoying or uncomfortable sometimes that might be,” Theresa May warned on Monday.

Speaking during the first day of the debate, the former Prime Minister told the Home Secretary: “I do worry about the potential unintended consequences of some of the measures in the bill which have been drawn quite widely.”

Tory MP Rob Roberts said that this second reading today was on the general aims of the bill and that to “throw the whole thing out” would be irresponsible. But he suggested that MPs could amend specifics in the bill at later stages.

His comments echoed those of Conservative backbench colleague Steve Baker, who said earlier this week that while he supports the bill in principle but that “when it gets to committee and report stage all bets are off when it comes to amendments”.

This could indicate that some Tories may support attempts to amend the bill at later stages, but Conservatives backbenchers overwhelmingly supported the bill cracking down on the right to protest this evening.

Conservative backbencher David Amess made the case for the powers against protest this afternoon. He complained that the “endless demonstrations that take place” in Westminster make it “very difficult to work” in his office in parliament.

“There is one group of people who will feel significantly less safe and less secure because of this bill: the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller community,” Labour MP Olivia Blake told parliament this evening.

“If the government was serious about addressing the issue of unauthorised encampments, they’d tackle the real problem – the shortage of places where it is permitted to stop and reside.

“All this legislation will do is strip people of their homes, push them into the criminal justice system and criminalise the way of life of an already persecuted community.”

The legislation debated today, in the wake of the Tory manifesto pledge to “tackle unauthorised traveller camps”, would create an offence of “residing on land without consent in or with a vehicle” and give the police seizure and forfeiture powers.

Having passed the second reading stage of the legislative process in the Commons this evening, the bill will now proceed to the committee and report stage before it goes on to be considered by peers in the House of Lords.

Below is the full text of the amendment tabled by Labour.

Keir Starmer
Angela Rayner
Anneliese Dodds
David Lammy
Nick Thomas-Symonds
Nicholas Brown

That this House declines to give a second reading to the police, crime, sentencing and courts bill, notwithstanding the need for a police covenant and for tougher sentences for serious crimes, including child murder, terrorism and dangerous driving, and for assaults on emergency service workers, because the bill rushes changes to protest law and fails to introduce a single new measure specifically designed to tackle the epidemic of violence against women and is therefore an abusers’ charter since domestic abuse rates have spiked and victims of rape are facing the lowest prosecution rates on record, and because the bill fails to criminalise street harassment, fails to make misogyny a hate crime, fails to raise minimum sentences for rape or stalking, and fails to give whole life orders to those found guilty of abduction and sexual assault and murder of a stranger

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