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Latest 12 May 2022

Democracy shrivels in silence. We must protect our right to protest.

Guest blog by Tom Wainwright, barrister at Garden Court Chambers

It is no exaggeration to say that the last fortnight has been one of the worst for freedom of expression, for the right to protest and for civil liberties in the history of the UK.

On 28 April, the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts (PCSC) Act received Royal Assent. Some of its draconian anti-protest provisions will come into effect today, Thursday 12 May, beginning with an increase to the maximum sentence for obstructing the highway, with further measures arriving at the end of June. On 10 May, the Government announced a new Public Order Bill in the Queen’s Speech, which will resurrect many of the provisions thrown out by the House of Lords in the passage of the PCSC Act, furthering this Government’s authoritarian agenda and seeking to quell all dissent, discourse and disagreement.

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Cumulatively, this legislation intends to bring the full might of the State to bear on those who protest in any way other than meekly signing a petition or quietly waving a placard. A right to demonstrate only if it is done unobtrusively and unnoticed is a right not worth having. Protest is not something separate and alien to democracy. It is essential to it and a vital safeguard against tyranny. Although almost explicitly introduced to target particular organisations, such as Extinction Rebellion and Insulate Britain, the removal of fundamental rights will apply across the board, silencing voices on issues local and national, large and small, in a drive for conformity and obedience which should concern us all.

The new Bill aims to stop protestors ‘locking on’, fixing themselves in place so they cannot be removed before their protest is heard; a non-violent form of protest used throughout the world and at least as far back in history as the Suffragettes. It will also create new offences of obstructing major transport works and interfering with airports, railways and printing presses. The Home Secretary seems particularly concerned about the last of those and the impact a demonstration may have on media barons’ profits.

The flaws in the legislation are many. Their incompatibility with basic freedoms is obvious. There is no doubt that much of it will not withstand scrutiny by the courts. It is almost certain the Government knows this and yet will plough ahead, so that when they are defeated they can blame ‘left-wing lawyers’ and play to their tabloid fanbase. Rather than clothe the Emperor, they choose to vilify the child who points out his nudity.

This Bill will have a long-lasting, chilling effect on our ability to express ourselves. Thousands will be deterred from standing up for their beliefs by the threat of imprisonment. Without hope of challenge or change, division and resentment will become entrenched.

Action is required now, from across the political spectrum, inside Parliament and out, inside the courts and out, to protect the right to speak out, while we still can.

Tom Wainwright is one of the UK’s leading barristers when it comes to protesters’ rights. He has a formidable reputation as a passionate defender and a strong advocate. As lead author on The Protest Handbook, Tom specialises in upholding protestors’ rights under Articles 8, 10 and 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights, and challenging the excessive or unlawful use of force by police officers. Tom’s practice in this area includes the Colston Statue Topplers, the ‘Stansted 15’ and ‘Rotherham 12’ protestors, the ‘Occupy Parliament’ demonstrations, R v Caroline Lucas MP, and R v Zac King and Alfie Meadows.

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