If you make protests impossible to perform legally, criminalise non-violent direct action, abolish or restrict the ability of citizens to challenge the Government in court through judicial reviews, turn people against lawyers, gerrymander the election boundaries and dish out cash in the way that looks best for Conservative MPs, that is deep, dark politics. Many of us here are not particularly political and perhaps do not see the dangers inherent in what the Government are doing. It all seems like a calculated ploy to turn all the cards in favour of an unaccountable Government that cannot be challenged in the courts, at the ballot box or on the streets.
The treatment of complainants
I support these improved safeguards because although I have not been in court very often, and when I have been there, it has been mostly as the complainant or a witness, I do think that we need better support for victims—or the plaintiff—who at the moment are treated very much as bit players in the whole theatre. It seems that they are almost forgettable because the two protagonists are the defence and the prosecution, and they take centre stage. It was obvious when we debated the Domestic Abuse Bill, when we discussed anonymity and other techniques for helping witnesses give evidence in court, so clearly that is needed.
The witness is often treated as a sort of emotionless void, with the legal test focusing on whether the proposed measures will improve their ability to give evidence, rather than, say, protect them from the trauma, embarrassment and hurt of facing up against the accused. This is no more apparent than in the way we treat victims of sexual violence and rape. The Section 41 rules were a major step forward but still fall far short of what is necessary, and so the amendments in this group would help recognise victims as humans and not just incidental characters in the whole story. Most importantly, they would allow the complainant to have their own independent legal representation in Section 41 applications, rather than relying on prosecution counsel, who, in their role as administrators of justice, have many competing obligations to juggle.
There are still many unsolved challenges in the treatment of complainants, and they are in desperate need of solutions.
My Amendments on the abolition of Police and Crime Commissioners
The two amendments I have tabled in this group are not on such a weighty issue as the sexual crimes we have been discussing. But they are on an issue of democracy, and I thank the Government on this occasion for making the Bill so gigantic that these two amendments come within scope. There are two distinct issues in my amendments. Amendment 278 focuses on the abolition of police and crime commissioners, and Amendment 279 is about abolishing the £5,000 deposit needed to stand as a candidate in police and crime commissioner elections.
Under the referendum idea, each police area would have its own referendum held on the same day as the next police and crime commissioner election. The question would be whether to keep police and crime commissioners or return to police authorities made up of a committee of local councillors. Importantly, for a referendum, my amendment also includes provision that the Secretary of State must then implement the result by statutory instrument, because this is intended to be a binding referendum, not an advisory one with no legal consequence.
The Green Party does not believe that police and crime commissioners have been a success. They have replaced a democratic, committee-based system with a directly elected position subject to very little scrutiny. Most normal people do not pay much attention to politics, and that is true across the board, but when you get as far down the pecking order as police and crime commissioners, even many political boffins probably could not name their local PCC. It was an unnecessary political experiment, and local people should be given the option to return to the old system of committee governance.
We have one former Met commissioner here, and he might be able to agree with me that the Metropolitan Police Authority and the assembly committee charged with holding the police to account worked extremely well. I am not suggesting something that has not been proved to work in the past.
Amendment 279 is about deposits and is limited to PCC elections due to the scope of the Bill, but election deposits should be abolished completely for all elections. Supposedly, they exist to deter joke candidates, allowing only serious candidates to stand for election, but it is obvious that this does not work. There are plenty of joke candidates who are not deterred by the deposit. One only has to think back to the Prime Minister’s election battle against Lord Buckethead, Count Binface, and a person dressed as Elmo. All three lost their deposits and seemed thoroughly to enjoy doing so. The 2019 general election saw 1,273 parliamentary candidates each lose their £500 deposit, totalling £636,500. The figure included 465 Green Party candidates, 136 Liberal Democrats, 165 Brexit Party candidates and 190 independent candidates.
Therefore, joke candidates were not deterred, and neither were very committed candidates who wished to stand for election to help improve their local area. However, the outcome was that the established parties—the Conservative Party and the Labour Party—kept most of their deposits, with anything that they did lose a drop in the ocean of their overall party budgets, while the smaller parties and independent candidates suffered a huge financial disadvantage. Election deposits are nothing more than an election tax on people who want to participate in the democratic process, and they should be abolished. I beg to move.
I later continued: I made my opening remarks quite short, because I did not think that the amendment would be very contentious. I thought that people would not like it, but I had no idea that it would generate so much interest. I thank all Lords who have contributed, especially Lady Harris of Richmond, for her personal recollections of disastrous commissioners. I, too, have some personal recollections of disastrous commissioners, starting with Boris Johnson, who as Mayor of London was completely useless and had to pull in people to do it for him, some of whom did not know what they were doing either.
I more or less thank Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, for his partial support. I was interested in the comments made by Lord Bach, because he has five years’ experience as a PCC. I have 16 years’ experience on police committees and of PCCs, so Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood, should perhaps have accepted that I might have a valid point of view on PCCs as well.
Lord Bach said that there are better ways of getting rid of police commissioners. I would be happy to put forward an amendment with a quicker way to do that rather than having a referendum; I am not wedded to referendums. Having said all that, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
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A Bill that should have been 4 Bills
I support the Lords who have spoken. Quite honestly, this is no way to treat the House of Lords. Especially as we get older, we do not want to stay up until 2 am—and, quite honestly, this Bill should have been four Bills. I think that everybody on the Government Benches knows that. Therefore, the 60 hours of debate and 400 amendments is not that that unusual. Bringing in these amendments at the last minute is really scandalous, and very typical of an arrogant attitude towards this House.
On Amendment 292H, it has been extensively reported that, despite the Protection from Eviction Act, the police routinely fail to assist tenants against illegal evictions. Part of this, as the noble Baroness said earlier, is lack of police, but it is also lack of training on this Act. Many police wrongly conclude that this is a civil matter and not a criminal one. As we know, this could not be further from the truth, and I hope the Minister can confirm that the police have power of arrest to prevent an unlawful eviction, so that we are all completely clear.
This has been a problem for quite some time, and it will only get worse in the coming months as winter comes on and Covid protections against evictions lift. Many frustrated landlords will want to kick people out of their homes, and some will knowingly or unknowingly try to evict without following the correct procedures. So I hope the Minister can confirm that police have power of arrest and that the Government will outline what is being done to ensure that the police properly protect tenants.
The new Government amendments targeting protest
We have had some powerful speeches already and it is a real pleasure to hear them. This was supposed to be the worst bit of the Bill. It is a terrible Bill but this was meant to be the absolute pits. However, the Government have made things worse by bringing in the latest amendments, so this is not the worst bit any more; it is just the next worst bit.
I have signed about a dozen amendments in this group. I could have signed them all and definitely support them all. Many of them are good, and worth raising, but the only real way forward is to remove these clauses altogether. I hope that opposition parties can join together to do that on Report, because our civil liberties and human rights are far too important to be negated in this way.
Amendment 293 from Lord Dubs, sets the scene perfectly because it stresses the importance of the right to protest in a free country. We always look down our noses at all these illiberal countries abroad who suppress their citizens—their human rights and liberty to protest—but this Government are trying to do exactly the same. Any restriction on the right to protest has to be really carefully considered, not rushed in with 18 pages of amendments at the last minute and without any proper discussion.
There is a balancing act between the rights of individuals and those of wider society. The balancing act already happens because there is a great number of restrictions on protest in this country. The police have many powers, which they use, and many tactics—some of which go too far, such as kettling. The Government want to ramp up these restrictions even more: being noisy or annoying could be banned. Some Peers could be banned because they are annoying. We could end up with the only protests, as has been said, being the ones that are so quiet and uneventful that they achieve absolutely nothing.
This is deep, dark politics. This is about a Conservative Government wanting to rewrite completely how we operate within society, as individuals against the state.
I think they are planning, or hoping, to remain the dominant political party for generations to come. That is what could happen through these terrible amendments.
If you make protests impossible to perform legally, criminalise non-violent direct action, abolish or restrict the ability of citizens to challenge the Government in court through judicial reviews, turn people against lawyers, gerrymander the election boundaries and dish out cash in the way that looks best for Conservative MPs, that is deep, dark politics. Many of us here are not particularly political and perhaps do not see the dangers inherent in what you, the Government, are doing. It all seems like a calculated ploy to turn all the cards in favour of an unaccountable Government that cannot be challenged in the courts, at the ballot box or on the streets. We all have to unite against this and deleting these clauses from the Bill is the beginning of that fight.
I have a tiny quibble on the issue that noble Peers have mentioned about the survival of the planet. The chances are that the planet will survive. What we are doing in this climate crisis is destroying the little bit of ecosphere that supports human life, so that is what we have to think about. It is not about survival of the planet but about survival of people.
Criminalising the annoying
My Lords, for me, this is getting like election night. Any politician in the room will tell you that it is when you are really tired but you are so wired that you cannot possibly sleep anyway.
I have signed three of these amendments but I wanted to speak mainly to Amendment 315A. I am concerned about this whole part of the Bill, because it is far too broad and risks criminalising a host of innocent behaviour. We heard earlier about the right to move around. Today, I was stopped by the police outside and could not go for nearly 250 yards on the pavement because a band was going through. I love an Army brass band—it is absolutely fine—so I joined the crowds on the other side of the road who were all pushing and shoving. We often take away the right to move around, sometimes for good causes. I would argue that protest is a good cause.
As regards stopping traffic, let us remember that traffic jams cost us billions of pounds every year and millions of people are inconvenienced, with long times added to their journeys to work—working people who are delayed by traffic jams. This morning outside the Marlin Hotel on Westminster Bridge Road, three Mercedes were parked in the bus lane. The buses had to go around them, slowing all the traffic. What are the Government doing about that sort of thing? I contacted the police and sent them the registration numbers, so let us hope that they were caught.
The definitions in the Bill of serious harm are a mess because serious annoyance cannot be a crime—it is too difficult to define. You cannot put people in jail for just being annoying. I am sure that sometimes we would all like to, but you cannot do it. I am particularly worried, after the way in which Covid was policed early on, about the inclusion of disease in the new public nuisance offence. At the start of Covid—and possibly all the way through—every prosecution was wrongful. That was partly because—and I will be generous to the Government for once—the Government were confused and blurred the lines between law, guidance, advice and so on. As I have said before in your Lordships’ House, it was hard for the police because they did not know what they should be doing and became a bit overzealous. That may have been well intentioned but it was not appropriate. There were wrongful prosecutions and convictions as a result. Let us be a bit more careful about the definitions in the Bill, because I think that they will cause more problems.
We are all boasting about our qualifications for going on demonstrations and that sort of thing. My first demo was in 1968 for CND, of which I am still a member, and we are still fighting nuclear weapons—but that is another issue. I argue that the Government are taking chaos and ambiguity to new heights and I urge them not to allow the dangerous and confusing language in the Bill to go through because it is certain to lead to injustice.
When Boris Johnson was Mayor of London, he brought in a rule about not drinking on the tube, which was a solution in search of a problem—because it was not a problem at the time. But it immediately made me want to run out, buy a bottle of gin and go drinking on the tube, because it was such a stupid rule. This provision is a little bit like that: I do not really want to carry a tube of superglue around, but I have on many occasions carried a bike lock. It is absolutely ludicrous.
When the Minister read out the list of amendments, my heart sank. Although I had looked at them all individually, somehow hearing them one after the other made me feel that this is totally wrong. If the Government do not withdraw all these amendments, we should vote against the Bill in its entirety.
The Minister talked about protestors, referring to the issue of whatever their cause may be. But the HS2 protestors, of whom I consider myself one, have actually been trying to save precious things for the nation. It is not fun to be out on a picket line, being shoved around by security guards and hassled by the police constantly. I was standing next to one man on a picket line who said, “I retired last year and I thought I would be birdwatching, but here I am holding a placard”. Those are the sorts of people who have been protesting about HS2; they have been trying to save precious eco-systems for the nation, for all of us, and to prevent the chopping down of ancient woodlands. We really cannot dismiss these people as troublemakers, deserving of all these amendments. I admire the attempts of Lord Paddick, to improve these measures, but it is a hopeless case.
The Government are very quick to talk about the views of the public and what the public want, perhaps from a few clips on TV and a few emails, but on the sewage amendment to the Environment Bill, they had thousands and thousands of emails, but they absolutely ignored them and carried on allowing sewage to be pumped into our rivers and on to our coastline. So please do not tell me that the public want this. The public did not want sewage, but the Government ignored that. The Government pick and choose to suit themselves what they design legislation around.
As Lord Beith, mentioned, there is also the late tabling of these amendments. It is a democratic outrage. They are of such legal significance and such a threat to people’s human rights that they should be the subject of a whole Bill, with public discussion about it, public consultation, human rights declarations and equalities impact assessments. Every MP should be furious that they have been bypassed, because the only scrutiny they will get is, if they are lucky, a quick 20 minutes during ping-pong to find out what they are all about. Because they are whipped, they will probably not pay any attention to it anyway. This is nothing more than a naked attack on civil liberties and a crackdown on protest, and we must oppose it for both what it is and how it is being done.
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