Five disabled peers have explained why they helped defeat government plans that would have eroded the right to protest.
The five crossbench and Liberal Democrat peers were among those members of the House of Lords who delivered a series of defeats to the government on Monday night and into the early hours of Tuesday.
Some of the defeats were on new amendments proposed by the government during the bill’s progress through the Lords – after the bill had already been passed by MPs – which means MPs will not be able to overturn them.
The government’s only option, if home secretary Priti Patel does not want to admit defeat, is to bring those measures back in a new bill.
These measures include plans to create a new offence of “locking on” by a protester who has attached themselves to another person or an object; to create new criminal offences of obstructing major transport works and interfering with the operation of key national infrastructure; and to give the police powers to stop and search someone without suspicion that they have committed an offence.
But some of the other defeats could still be overturned when the police, crime, sentencing and courts bill returns to the House of Commons.
These include amendments to government plans to impose conditions on protests if they are too noisy, and to increase sentences for highway obstruction.
Only last month, two leading disabled activists said they were prepared to break the law, and even go to prison, if the government succeeded in bringing in new laws to crack down on the right to protest through the bill.
In all, the five disabled peers, crossbenchers Baroness [Jane] Campbell, Baroness [Tanni] Grey-Thompson and Baroness [Susan] Masham, together with Liberal Democrats Baroness [Sal] Brinton and Baroness [Celia] Thomas, helped defeat the government on 10 votes relating to freedom of expression and the right to protest.
Baroness Campbell, who has a history of direct action in defence of disability rights, told Disability News Service (DNS) that the government’s bill “disproportionally criminalises peaceful activity and is a blatant assault on our hard-fought right to freely engage in one of the few essential ways to express dissatisfaction”.
She said: “As someone who frequently protested throughout the 90s, in peaceful actions and marches in Westminster, to highlight disabled people’s long overdue disability rights laws, I understand the ramifications of what a government erosion of this protest method would mean.”
She said the bill’s progress through parliament had “demonstrated an alarming disregard for parliamentary scrutiny, which could seriously impede British people’s democratic rights of freedom of expression and protest”, including the government adding 18 pages of 11 new offences after the bill had already left the Commons.
Baroness Campbell said she believed the police already had all the powers they needed to address the concerns raised by the government.
She added: “I believe this bill could have worrying unintended consequences, resulting in silencing nonviolent opposition to state sanctioned laws and practices which damage our British society and the world which we inhabit.”
Baroness Grey-Thompson told DNS that peers had “strongly showed the government its feelings on the subject of the right to protest”.
She said: “I strongly support people’s right to protest, especially outside parliament.
“For many disabled people, this is sometimes the only way our voice is heard.”
Baroness Brinton, former president of the Liberal Democrats, said the new government amendments on protesting had been “despicable” and overturning them had been “particularly important” for disabled people.
She said the votes showed that disabled people had “an absolute right” to continue to protest and were “too often invisible” and that public protest “is one of the few ways in which we can become visible”.
She told DNS: “One of the really good things about last night was that there were the most extraordinary allies [voting against the government], so having former chief constables and commissioners of the Met joining with people like Jane, who have a long and distinguished track record of protesting.
“Jane was absolutely at the forefront of protests, and people like that were linking together to say to the government that this is nonsense and it’s got to stop.
“It’s the beginning of trying to remove our democracy if we stop people protesting.”
The crossbench peer Baroness Masham said she had received hundreds of emails from people concerned about the government’s plans.
She said she did not believe that people should be denied the right to a peaceful protest “because sometimes it’s the only way they have to demonstrate their feelings”.
She said: “I do think disabled people need to have their voices heard. And it has been difficult. We have had to fight for a lot of things over the years.
“I think we have to be very careful that we don’t get a police state. People here want freedom and they value their freedom.”
In the wake of the kidnap and murder of Sarah Everard by a Metropolitan police officer, and other serious allegations made against serving police officers, she said she had also been concerned about whether the police could be trusted with the new powers proposed by the government.
The Liberal Democrat peer Baroness [Celia] Thomas told DNS that she herself – like many other older, disabled people – had taken part in “noisy protest marches and traffic-stopping demonstrations”.
She said she had been glad to be able to register her opposition to the government’s amendments, even though she had been “seriously hampered” herself in accessing the House of Lords when Extinction Rebellion protesters had blocked the roads in central London in 2019.
Home Office minister Baroness Williams had told peers on Monday night that the measures brought in by the government after the bill had left the Commons were “vital to protecting the country from the highly disruptive tactics employed by a small number of people”.
She said: “The rights to freedom of speech and assembly are, as we have all said, a cornerstone of our democracy, and the government will not shrink from defending them.
“But a responsible government, who stand up for the rule of law, must also defend the rights and freedoms of the law-abiding majority.”
She said the amendments were a “necessary and proportionate means for achieving that balance of rights and responsibilities”.
The Home Office said yesterday (Wednesday) that the government would reflect on the votes in the Lords before the bill returned to the Commons.
A Home Office spokesperson said: “It is disappointing that the Lords did not back the public order measures that will ensure the everyday lives of the overwhelming majority are not disrupted by a selfish minority of protesters whose actions endanger lives and cost the public millions of pounds.”
Picture: (From left to right) Baroness Grey-Thompson, Baroness Campbell and Baroness Brinton
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