A controversial plan to give the police more powers to crackdown on protests has come a step closer to becoming law tonight despite claims that the curbs would ‘make a dictator blush’.
MPs overwhelmingly voted to progress the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, after initial rumblings of Tory backbench unease.
The bill would make it easier for officers to combat non-violent protests which cause significant disruption to the public or hinder access to Parliament.
The wide-ranging legislation would also make the most serious offenders serve at least two-thirds of their prison sentences.
Tonight at just after 7pm, MPs voted 359 to 263, a majority of 96, at second reading, the first significant Commons test of a bill.
As the bill was voted through, protesters had gathered outside the Palace of Westminster to rally against both the legislation and also the police, in the wake of arrests at a vigil for Sarah Everard last week.
People in Parliament Square, London, taking part in a demonstration against gender violence following the murder of Sarah Everard tonight
As the bill was voted through, protesters had gathered outside the Palace of Westminster to rally against both the legislation and also the police, in the wake of arrests at a vigil for Sarah Everard last week
Demonstrators stand amidst flare smoke and light at a protest at Parliament Square tonight
The Policing Bill was part of the Conservative 2019 manifesto but elements raised eyebrows from MPs on the party’s libertarian wing.
The draft legislation includes an offence of ‘intentionally or recklessly causing public nuisance’, and someone will be judged to have committed this crime if they cause ‘serious harm to the public’, which can include ‘serious annoyance, serious inconvenience or serious loss of amenity’, with those convicted potentially facing a fine or jail.
The ‘serious annoyance’ element of the criteria has prompted a furious backlash from critics who warn the laws could pose a threat to free speech rights and the right to protest.
Labour voted against the bill, and shortly after the vote Sir Keir Starmer railed against it in a Twitter video, branding the Government’s priorities ‘completely wrong’.
He said: ‘The Conservatives have just voted for legislation to increase prison sentences for those damaging statues. But does nothing to address violence towards women and girls.’
But the party came under fire for a tweet accusing the Tories of ‘effectively decriminalising rape’, which drew condemnation from Conservative MPs.
Earlier DUP MP Gavin Robinson had said: ‘I must indicate that I rail against, in the strongest possible terms, the overarching, sweeping and draconian provisions on protest. I have heard Government’s position around what they intend.
‘The loose and lazy way this legislation is drafted would make a dictator blush. Protests will be noisy, protests will disrupt and no matter how offensive we may find the issue at their heart, the right to protest should be protected.’
And Labour’s Clive Efford added: ‘We’re witnessing a Tory-led coup without guns.’
There is growing concern among some Tory MPs at the extent of the proposed powers as they warned the ‘fundamental right to protest’ must be protected.
Demonstrators holding banners gather at Parliament Square tonight as the Policing Bill passed its first Commons test
Women hold placards urging MPs to ‘protect democracy’ as the vote in the Commons passed
The Bill also includes wider measures designed to overhaul the justice system.
The passage of the Bill through the Commons comes amid an ongoing backlash over the policing of the Sarah Everard vigil at the weekend.
Steve Baker, Tory MP and former Brexit minister, and Dominic Grieve, the former Tory attorney general, said in a joint article for the Conservative Home website that the ‘events on Clapham Common were a disaster for the image of policing by consent’.
They said it was a ‘vivid illustration of the consequences of the enactment of bad law’ as they argued MPs ‘must learn the right lessons from this as we consider the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill’.
Addressing the wider issue of disruptive protests, the pair said that ‘the willingness of contemporary protestors to use non-violent mass law breaking to pursue political ends by bringing our cities to a halt… cannot just be ignored’.
They said that if current police powers are ‘insufficient… then this may justify changing the law’.
They added: ‘But in doing so MPs must uphold the fundamental right to protest along with the rights and freedoms of those whose lives may be seriously disrupted by such demonstrations.’
The pair argued that parts of the Bill ‘may create uncertainty by giving far too much discretion to the police in determining this balance’.
Smoke flares are set off in Parliament Square this evening during a protest against the Government’s Policing Bill
Activists gathered in the centre of Westminster outside the Houses of Parliament where the Bill was being debated today
The wide-ranging Bill also includes plans to bring in tougher sentences for child killers and those who cause death on the roads, longer jail terms for serious violent and sexual offenders, and expand child sex abuse laws to ban religious leaders and sports coaches from having sex with 16- and 17-year-olds in their care.
The Bill could also see the maximum penalty for criminal damage of a memorial increased from three months to 10 years.
Labour’s decision to vote against the Bill prompted Amanda Milling, the co-chairman of the Conservative Party to blast: ‘It is shocking that Labour is trying to block tough new laws to keep people safe, including many vital measures to protect women from violent criminals.
‘By voting against this Bill Labour are voting against tougher sentences for child murderers and sex offenders, killer drivers and measures that protect the vulnerable.’
Labour’s Jess Phillips, shadow minister for domestic violence and safeguarding, hit back and said the Bill is ‘full of divisive nonsense’.
She said of Ms Milling’s comments: ‘This is a disgusting and untrue statement.
‘The Conservative Government’s Bill does absolutely nothing currently to increase sentences for rapists, stalkers, or those who batter, control and abuse women. It does nothing about street harassment and assaults.’
Tonight’s second reading vote represents the first major stage in the Bill’s passage through Parliament.