1 December 2023

Those calling for tougher protest laws should be careful what they wish for

By Francis Cox

This weekend, like every weekend since 7 October, thousands of people will take to the streets of London to participate in pro-Palestine marches. While these demonstrations have, on the whole, been peaceful, there have been incidents which have led to calls for greater police powers to crack down on hate speech. But tighter protest laws could be an own goal for those wanting to protect our British values.

For a start, the laws we already have are being misused. The Public Order Act 1986 was created to deal with far-right protesters and football hooliganism, but the police now use it to criminalise those expressing their deeply held religious beliefs around sexuality. The Antisocial Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014 was designed to deal with persistent antisocial behaviour that causes misery to local communities. The police have used that to target those silently praying outside abortion clinics, despite the European Courts deeming freedom of thought as an absolute right. The recording of ‘non-crime hate incidents’ was brought in to help the police to tackle racial hatred following the appalling murder of Stephen Lawrence. The police have found a way to use it to silence law-abiding people who disagree with highly contested gender theory. It is not credible for the police to say they cannot deal with non-violent extremism if they are prepared to criminalise peaceful activity like this. It makes one wonder whether there is really a lack of powers or just a lack of will to tackle left wing extremism.

Suella Braverman was right to commission a review into political activism within the police. When the force readily place harsh conditions on far-right protesters, but are reluctant to do the same for left-wing protesters, despite their posing the same or even greater levels of threat, it is legitimate to question their motivations. A desire to show ‘inclusiveness’ or ‘diversity’ often seems to far outweigh the need to fight crime and keep communities safe. The police say that the need to gain the trust of some minority groups justifies treating them differently from the rest of the population. But surely dividing people into ethnic groups instead of treating everyone justly and fairly is the definition of discrimination?

And those calling for harsher treatment of left-wing protesters should be careful what they wish for. Of course, the Government was right to take a stance against the environmental protesters who saw it fit to trample on the rights of the hard-working majority by blocking roads. But how confident can we be that the police will not criminalise another group who just happen to choose a less fashionable cause?

If we create new laws to enable the police to take tougher action against terrorist sympathisers, how can we be confident that these new powers will not also be used to criminalise the very communities they are designed to protect?

So how do we defend our British values? We need to change public order legislation to prevent it being used by the left to pressure the police to silence their critics. We need to ensure people cannot be criminalised just because they said something that someone else found insulting or offensive. Members of Parliament should use the Criminal Justice Bill to put pressure on the Government to strengthen freedom of speech protections in law and put in place mechanisms to ensure impartial policing, instead of creating new offenses of hate and extremism.

Meanwhile, if there is further evidence of extremism and antisemitism at this weekend’s marches, the police should use their existing powers to deal with it.

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Francis Cox is a writer.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.