Joint letter to Peers regarding the Public Order Bill and the right to protest

Read the joint letter urging Peers to protect the right to protest by supporting amendments that reduce or remove the impact of the Public Order Bill.
  Published:  26 Jan 2023    |      3 minute read

Public Order Bill, House of Lords Report Stage, 30 January 2023.

Dear member of the House of Lords,

As organisations committed to halting climate change, promoting sustainable development and protection of the natural environment, we write to express our concern about measures contained in the Public Order Bill which will have a chilling effect on ordinary people exercising their right to free speech through peaceful protest, and to urge you to support amendments that reduce or remove its impact.

Over many decades we have witnessed the vital importance of peaceful protest in raising the alarm about the urgent threat of climate catastrophe and the decline of nature, and pressing decision makers from the global to the local level to act to protect people and the planet. In its scrutiny of the Bill, the Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR) stated: “The right to peaceful protest is a cornerstone of democracy, which should be championed and protected rather than stifled”.

This new legislation follows immediately from the passing of the highly controversial Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022. It contained many measures which were opposed across civil society because of concerns about their impact on the ability of the public to make their views known, including noisily, to those in power.

We are disappointed to see that measures which were previously rejected by the House of Lords have been re-introduced to parliament in this Bill. The JCHR says measures in the Public Order Bill “pose an unacceptable threat to the fundamental right to engage in peaceful protest.”

We are concerned about the impact that extending police stop and search powers to protests (both with and without suspicion) could have on those wishing to attend peaceful demonstrations. The fear of being subjected to an invasive stop and search could deter the public from joining protests essential to voice the need to protect nature and accelerate climate action, having a worrying chilling effect outlined by the JCHR.

Measures to create an offence of going equipped to lock on could see members of the public arrested simply for carrying ordinary household objects such as bike locks and string near protests, further increasing the risk of deterring the public from exercising their rights. Serious Disruption Prevention Orders (SDPOs) could impose the most extreme restrictions on an individual’s liberty – including banning them from protests entirely – even without them having been convicted of a crime.

Late government amendments tabled to the Bill would dramatically reduce the threshold for police intervention against protest, to include activities that would not previously have been covered. This extension of the reach of the measures has significant implications for free speech that have not been considered by the Commons.

This legislation has drawn international attention. In December, 5 United Nations Special Rapporteurs, including those concerned with human rights and climate change and the environment, wrote to the UK government setting out their objections to the Bill. They state that the legislation “could result in undue and grave restrictions on the exercise of the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, as well as of expression.” They note that “the exercise of the rights to expression and to peaceful assembly are crucial to ensure individuals can be active participants in tackling today’s global challenges, including human rights, climate change and sustainable development."

At this critical time the government must maintain our right to protest, as a vital means by which the public can press decision makers at all levels to move faster to address the greatest challenges of our age.

We urge you to reject the late government amendments and support amendments in line with the recommendations of the JCHR to remove the most restrictive and chilling aspects of the legislation entirely and ensure others are compatible with human rights legislation.

Yours sincerely,

Miriam Turner and Hugh Knowles, Co-Executive Directors, Friends of the Earth
(England, Wales and Northern Ireland)

Stephanie Draper, Chief Executive, Bond

Andy Knott MBE, Chief Executive, League Against Cruel Sports

Katy Chakrabortty, Head of Policy and Advocacy, Oxfam GB

Kate Ashbrook, General secretary, Open Spaces Society

Andy Lester, Head of Conservation, A Rocha UK

Tessa Khan, Executive Director, Uplift

Pete Moorey, Head of Campaigns & UK Advocacy, Christian Aid

Dr Darren Moorcroft, Chief Executive, The Woodland Trust

Beccy Speight, Chief Executive, RSPB

Joan Edwards, Director of Policy and Public Affairs, The Wildlife Trusts

Terina Keene, CEO, Railway Children 

Jo Lewis, Director of Policy and Strategy, Soil Association 

Catherine Pettengell, Executive Director, Climate Action Network UK (CAN-UK)

Christine Allen, Director, CAFOD

Tom Fyans, Interim CEO, CPRE The countryside charity

Dr Rose O’Neill, Chief Executive, Campaign for National Parks

Sarah Fowler, Chief Executive, Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust

Nick Measham, CEO, WildFish

Mike Podmore, Director, STOPAIDS

Chris Butler-Stroud, Chief Executive Officer, Whale and Dolphin Conservation

Shane Tomlinson, Co-CEO, E3G

Kristine Yakhama, Coordinator, Good Health Community Programmes

Dr Amy McDonnell, Campaign Director, Zero Hour

Laura Clarke, CEO, ClientEarth

Steve Murigi, Chief Executive, Primary Care International

Tom Baker, Director of Politics, Participation and Campaigns, Save the Children UK

Oliver Greenfield, Convenor, Green Economy Coalition

Kit Stoner, Chief Executive, Bat Conservation Trust

Areeba Hamid and Will McCallum, Co-Executive Directors, Greenpeace UK

Melissa Green, Chief Executive, National Federation of Women's Institutes

Ben Simms, Chief Executive Officer, Tropical Health and Education Trust

Tom Mitchell, Executive Director, International Institute for Environment and Development

Heidi Chow, Executive Director, Debt Justice

Shaun Spiers, Executive director, Green Alliance

Julie Williams, CEO, Butterfly Conservation

Bronwen Smith-Thomas, Interim Co-Director, The Climate Coalition 

Kate Norgrove, Executive Director, Advocacy and Campaigns, WWF

The government is pushing ahead with plans that could weaken our basic human rights

The government is pushing ahead with plans that could weaken our basic human rights