New policing powers risk creating a hostile environment for peaceful protestors, the joint committee on human rights (JCHR) warns in a report published today following legislative scrutiny of the public order bill.

Designed to combat disruptive protests, the draft legislation would instead have a “chilling effect” on the right to peaceful protest, putting fundamental democratic rights at risk.

The government has introduced the bill to give the police in England and Wales greater powers to deal with protests that are peaceful but disruptive. It adds to changes made to the law on protest by the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022, which the committee previously criticised for threatening the right to protest.

It includes new criminal offences for ‘locking-on’ or disrupting transport works and national infrastructure, greater powers for stop and search, and would create Serious Disruption Prevention Orders. 

The report highlights that the right to freedom of expression and freedom of assembly are protected under Articles 10 and 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights, and urges the government to revise the bill to ensure that these rights are respected. 

The committee warns that the definitions of the new offences are broad and imprecise, and would risk encompassing acts of protest protected under human rights law. “Locking-on” could encompass actions as simple as linking arms with another individual and would be met with a prison sentence of up to 51 weeks; obstructing major transport works covers actions that do not and are not intended to cause significant disruption; interfering with key national infrastructure could be committed by interference with infrastructure that is neither key nor national.   

As currently written, the draft legislation shifts the burden of proof on to the defendant to prove that their actions were reasonable. The JCHR finds that this is an unnecessary interference with the presumption of innocence and the right to fair trial, and should be removed from the bill. 

New stop and search powers would enable police to carry out searches without reasonable suspicion.

Such powers have only previously been used in response to serious violence and terrorism, but those in the bill would leave peaceful protestors at risk of arbitrary, discriminatory and invasive treatment.

Serious Disruption Prevention Orders could prevent individuals being able to exercise their rights to protest and represent a disproportionate response to the disruption peaceful protest may cause. 

Publishing the report, acting chair of the JCHR Joanna Cherry QC MP said: “The right to peaceful protest is a cornerstone of a healthy democracy, it should be protected. The law must strike a careful balance between the right to protest and the prevention of disruption to the wider population. This requires a nuanced approach, yet in reaction to what it perceives as overly disruptive protests the government has decided to take a blunderbuss to the problem.

She continued: “The right to protest is too important to be chipped away at. The government must revisit this bill and ensure it fully respects one of our key democratic principles.”

Home secretary Priti Patel said of the bill last month: “What we have seen in recent years is a rise in criminal, disruptive and self-defeating guerrilla tactics, carried out by a selfish few in the name of protest.

“This bill backs the police to take proactive action and prevent such disruption happening in the first place. These measures stand up for the responsible majority and it is time that parliament got behind them,” she went on.

Adam Wagner, a barrister who regularly represents protesters, told MPs earlier this month that the plans would not deter extremist tactics by protesters from groups such as Insulate Britain– but could dissuade the average person from attending peaceful protests.