The House of Lords voted through new regulations tonight which give the police greater powers to ban protests. But many peers criticised government tactics used to get the measure through.
A fatal motion that aimed to kill the measure was defeated by 64 votes to 154.
The law now lowers the threshold when police can impose conditions or ban a protest.
They could previously intervene where there was “serious disruption”, defined as “significant” and “prolonged”.
The new measures mean police can impose conditions if a protest “may” lead to “more than minor” disruption.
Yesterday, a human rights barrister, Adam Wagner, said the measure would give the police “near total discretion” over which processions or assemblies could be controlled by conditions.
A Labour motion of regret, criticising government parliamentary procedure, was approved by 177 votes to 141.
The regulations were backed by MPs in a vote yesterday by 277 to 217.
“Turning point” for parliamentary democracy
Tonight’s vote was controversial because the House of Lords had already voted against the measure in the final stages of the 2023 Public Order Act earlier this year. It was too late to be debated by MPs and was excluded from the act.
But the government chose instead to introduce the change in secondary legislation, which gets less scrutiny than primary legislation.
The Home Office minister, Lord Sharpe of Epsom, said:
“These regulations are designed to ensure public order legislation is clear, consistent and current. They will also support the police in striking the correct balance between the rights of protesters and the public.”
But the Green Party’s Baroness Jones, who introduced the fatal motion, said:
“I do not think for one moment that this piece of legislation is going to catch any more protesters. People who think that they are defending the planet are very dedicated and creative. They will come up with other ways of protesting, so this particular law is likely to catch other people.”
She also described the vote as a “turning point” for parliamentary democracy. She said:
“This government move sets a precedent that the Government can use secondary legislation to overrule Parliament’s will as expressed in votes on primary legislation. This means that any future Minister, at any time, could decide to change any law in any way.
“If the Government are allowed to do this today, the precedent will have been set. They will do it again next month and then the next Government will do it as well, and parliamentary democracy will seep away until this House is less than a talking shop.”
Labour abstained in the vote on Baroness Jones’ motion.
The party’s home affairs spokesperson, Lord Coaker, introduced the motion of regret. He said:
“the Government have driven a coach and horses through the way that parliamentary democracy in this country works.”
“This shoddy piece of constitution-disrespecting legislation, put forward with no consultation, shows just how far this Government have fallen. It is a moral and constitutional outrage, of which the Government should be ashamed.”
The Conservative, Viscount Hailsham, said:
“I have real reservations about the process that is being adopted”.
He said the secondary legislation was designed to reverse the defeat in the House of Lords, earlier this year.
“If that is a desirable thing to do, it should be done by primary legislation.”
A former clerk to the House of Commons, the cross-bencher Lord Lisvane, said:
“The manner in which the government have proceeded that has caused me … great concern. The Home Office has behaved in a way for which I can find no kinder word to use than ‘disreptuable’.”
Lord Hogan-Howe, a former Metropolitan police commissioner, said changes were needed to the law because it was “being abused in a way that was hurting too many people”. But he said secondary legislation was the wrong way to include the definition of serious disruption and he supported Labour’s motion of regret.
Another former senior police officer, the Liberal Democrat peer, Lord Paddick, said the way the government had handled the measure showed “a lack of professionalism”. The failure to use primary legislation showed “a clear lack of accountability”, he said, because “scrutiny of secondary legislation is cursory”.
The writer and journalist, Baroness Claire Fox, said:
“There is a serious danger that the law, and secondary legislation in particular, is being used because there is somehow a failure of the police to police and a failure of the Government to ensure that the police police.
“The Government have made the situation worse, and using the law in this way is discrediting in every possible way.”
Lord Hunt, chairman of the secondary legislation scrutiny committee, criticised a Home Office explanatory memo, which failed to explain that the measures had been defeated by peers previously. He said:
“poor quality explanation was the most unwelcome feature of the secondary legislation that has been laid in the last 12 months”.