by Marcial Boo
Published: 21 Nov 2022
Britain has a rich history of protest, dating back at least to 1217 when landowners forced King Henry III to sign the Charter of the Forest as a protest against punitive taxes and restrictions on farming. Protests against Corn Laws, which kept the price of food artificially high, led to their abolition in 1846. Protests by suffragists also helped women get equal voting rights in 1928.
Recent protests across the UK have sparked debate on whether such disruption supports or damages a cause. Nevertheless, the right to protest is one of the essential foundations of a democratic society and protected under Article 10 (Freedom of Expression) and 11 (Freedom of Assembly) of the European Convention on Human Rights.
The Equality and Human Rights Commission was created in 2006 to help protect these rights. We are concerned that some of these guaranteed freedoms may be put at risk by the Public Order Bill currently being debated in the UK Parliament.
Protests can be disruptive. That is part of their point, after all. In fact, the rights to freedom of expression and assembly are qualified rights. This means that our rights can be legitimately restricted in some circumstances, such as when the disruption caused by the protests becomes too severe.
However, protests have also allowed the powerless to have a voice, influence debate and bring important issues to wider attention. It is therefore important for a democratic society to get the balance right – between, on the one hand, allowing those passionate for change to peacefully protest and, on the other, allowing those happy with the status quo to get on peacefully with their lives.
"The right to protest is one of the essential foundations of a democratic society."
The current legal framework provides a reasonable balance but the proposals in the Public Order Bill shift the balance, and we think they may go too far.
They risk inhibiting protests and leading to unnecessary criminalisation of peaceful protesters. The new offences of ‘obstructing major transport work’ and ‘locking on’ in particular are vaguely defined and could be misused to arrest people who are protesting peacefully.
We must of course give the police appropriate powers to keep us safe and enable us to go about our daily lives. We must also make sure that new powers are not excessive and do not adversely impact only certain groups of the population. We already know that the stop and search powers of the police disproportionately and unfairly impact people by their race, which is a characteristic protected in law. We are concerned that an expansion of these powers risks interfering too much with freedom of expression and assembly, which are protected rights.
The Convention on Human Rights, in Article 6, also protects us from unfair arrest by presuming innocence until proven guilty. Proposals in the Public Order Bill to lower the burden of proof are a risk to that too. We challenge the government to remove the provisions on stop and search without suspicion, as this interferes with our right to privacy and our right to freedom from discrimination.
There will always be debate about what constitutes an acceptable protest. That being said, we have a right to peaceful protest and we must defend that right. It is often an important way that vital issues – for democracy, for the environment and for equality – are able to be expressed and then addressed. That benefits us all.
Read the full briefing on our website.