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Government in fresh bid to crack down on ‘guerrilla’ protests

Home Secretary Priti Patel said ministers are determined to prevent protesters bringing the country to ‘a grinding halt’ (Gareth Fuller/PA)
Home Secretary Priti Patel said ministers are determined to prevent protesters bringing the country to ‘a grinding halt’ (Gareth Fuller/PA)

Ministers have launched a fresh attempt to crack down on disruptive “guerrilla protests”, with harsher sentences and new criminal offences for those who glue or lock themselves to roads or structures.

The Public Order Bill will outlaw tactics in England and Wales such as protesters “locking on” to public transport infrastructure or gluing themselves to roads, which have been adopted by campaign groups such as Insulate Britain.

It represents a bid to revive measures which were previously put forward under the now-passed Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill but had to be scrapped after being knocked back by the House of Lords.

In a sign of the Government’s determination to drive through the measures, officials said the legislation was set to be introduced in Parliament on Wednesday.

A government document setting out the detail of the Bills announced in the Queen’s Speech said: “Our Public Order Bill will give the police the powers they need to prevent a minority of protesters from using guerrilla tactics that cause misery to the hardworking public, disrupting businesses, costing millions in taxpayers’ money and putting lives at risk.”

The Bill will create new criminal offences of “locking on” and going equipped to “lock on” to other people, objects or buildings in order to cause “serious disruption”, with a maximum penalty of up to six months’ imprisonment, an unlimited fine, or both.

A new offence of interfering with key national infrastructure – such as airports, railways and printing presses – will carry a maximum sentence of 12 months in prison, an unlimited fine, or both.

It will also become illegal to obstruct major transport works, such as the HS2 high-speed rail link, again punishable by up to six months in prison, an unlimited fine, or both.

The Bill will also extend stop and search powers so the police can seize articles related to the new offences, while new serious disruption prevention orders will also be available for those who repeatedly cause criminal disruption.

Home Secretary Priti Patel said ministers are determined to prevent protesters bringing the country to “a grinding halt”, when she was asked about the plans during a visit to the Metropolitan Police specialist training centre in Gravesend, Kent, on Monday.

“The law-abiding, responsible majority have had enough of anti-social, disruptive protests carried out by a self-indulgent minority who seem to revel in causing mayhem and misery for the rest of us,” she said.

Ms Patel denied she is attempting to erode the right to protest, describing it as a “fundamental right … that we all cherish dearly” and dismissing such claims put forward by opponents as a “lazy excuse”.

Asked what checks will ensure police do not abuse the new powers, amid concerns from opponents about heavy handedness by officers, she said the police have “specialist training” to deal with public order incidents.

“The police are incredibly sensitive in the way in which they deal with those protesters – they have to be for very good reasons, public safety is the paramount issue here,” she said.

Norman Reimer, the chief executive of the group Fair Trials, said: “By reintroducing plans that have already been rejected by UK parliamentarians, the UK government appears to be intent on destroying the right to peaceful protest rather than protecting it.”

Lawyers called on the Government to address backlogs in cases waiting to be dealt with by the courts ahead of introducing new criminal offences.

Jo Sidhu QC, chairman of the Criminal Bar Association, said the Government’s “ongoing refusal to properly fund the prosecutors and defenders required to deal with the pile-up of delayed trials for existing public order cases, means any new legislation for new criminal offences will fail to deliver justice for either the public or those accused”.

I. Stephanie Boyce, the president of the Law Society of England and Wales, said: “If the Government is serious about tackling crime it must implement the recommended 15% increase in criminal legal aid fees to ensure the survival of a functioning criminal justice system.”

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