Harrogate MP Andrew Jones defends crime bill criticised as 'fundamental attack' on protests
Harrogate and Knaresborough MP Andrew Jones has defended a new crime bill that will give police new powers to deal with protests after it was criticised as a "fundamental attack" on freedom of speech.
The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill covers major government proposals on crime and justice, including changes to protests, and passed its first hurdle this week after an overwhelming vote by Conservative MPs.
The protest measures - which have been drawn up by ministers and police chiefs - have been opposed by opposition parties and will mean more conditions are imposed on static demonstrations including start and finish times, noise limits and penalties for activists for causing "serious annoyance".
At a meeting of North Yorkshire County Council's Harrogate and Knaresborough Area Committee meeting today, Liberal Democrat councillor David Goode questioned MP Andrew Jones over why he voted in favour of the bill which he said would "significantly restrict" people's rights to hold peaceful protests.
"The underlying principle of freedom of speech and freedom to protest is absolutely unchanged," Mr Jones responded. "This is about making sure we can protest in a way which doesn't stop people getting to work or a hospital appointment.
"It is possible to protest without impacting others so what we need to strike therefore is that balance and that is what the bill does."
The bill - which had its second reading passed by 359 votes to 263 on Tuesday - also contains dozens of new measures to increase sentences for child killers and other violent criminals, as well as tougher penalties for attacks on police officers and changes to sexual offences legislation.
The most controversial part, however, are the reforms on protests which garnered extra interest after the scenes of police officers restraining women attending a vigil in memory of Sarah Everard in London on Saturday.
At present, police need to prove protesters knew they had been told to move on before they can be said to have broken the law.
The bill proposes an offence of "intentionally or recklessly causing public nuisance" which is designed to stop people occupying public spaces to make themselves both seen and heard.
The new laws would also give the Home Secretary Priti Patel the authority to define “serious disruption to the life of the community” and “serious disruption to the activities of an organisation” — a concept opponents argue is not clear enough.
Speaking at a debate in the House of Commons this week, the Home Secretary defended the proposed changes to peaceful protests which she said are a "cornerstone of democracy".
She said: "This bill will give police the powers to take a more proactive approach in tackling dangerous and disruptive protests. The threshold at which the police can impose conditions on the use of noise at a protest is rightfully high.
"The majority of protesters will be able to continue to act, make noise as they do so now without police intervention.
"But we are changing it to allow the police to put conditions on noisy protests that cause significant disruption to those in the vicinity. As with all our proposals, the police response will still need to be proportionate."
By Jacob Webster, Local Democracy Reporter