Civil rights campaigners and environmentalists have called on peers to kill a public order bill targeting radical climate protesters, as it comes before the House of Lords for its second reading. The bill will make “locking on” – where protesters cuff themselves to a target – a criminal offence, among other measures.
A petition signed by more than 300,000 people and coordinated by Liberty and Greenpeace was handed into the Home Office, demanding it drops its “attempt to overthrow democracy”.
Justice, the law reform organisation, called on peers to dismiss the “unevidenced and dangerous” bill “out of hand”.
Big Brother Watch, the civil rights group, said: “It is vital that peers act to protect civil liberties and force the home secretary to ditch the worst of her anti-protest plans.”
The new public order bill has already attracted controversy, coming hard on the heels of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts (PCSC) Act, which extended the restrictions on public protest and was branded “draconian” by peers and lawyers.
The bill will revive a number of measures struck out by peers from the PCSC Act when it was considered by the upper house last December. They include orders that can ban named individuals from joining protests and an expansion of police powers to stop and search people on the grounds they might be planning to commit a protest-related offence – including many newly created by the bill – as well as powers for “suspicionless” searches around protests.
It will also create new offences of “locking on”, where protesters chain or glue themselves to immovable objects or each other, going to protests equipped to lock on, obstructing major transport works, interfering with national infrastructure and tunnelling – all tactics used by climate activists.
Greenpeace supporters dressed as zombies holding a banner saying “rekill the bill” handed in their petition to the Home Office on Tuesday morning.
“There seems to be a running theme at the Home Office for bringing back unwanted and unwelcome proposals, as well as the people attempting to push them through,” said Megan Corton Scott, Greenpeace’s UK policy adviser. “Suella Braverman has picked up where Priti Patel left off with this zombie public order bill, but this attempt to overthrow democracy when it comes to peaceful protest has already been rejected by the Lords once.
“The fact this government, like the last, is yet again trying to crack down on our right to peacefully protest has echoes of authoritarianism. It’s crucial now that peers see through ministers’ dirty tactics of renaming and repackaging the same draconian measures and this time kill them off once and for all.”
Like its predecessor, the bill is explicitly aimed at tackling disruption caused by climate protesters, who in recent years have targeted national fossil fuel infrastructure, high-speed rail networks and roads around London. But Tyrone Steele, a criminal lawyer at Justice, warned that its proposed new offences had the potential to “capture an enormous range of ordinary peaceful behaviour”.
“Overnight, simple acts such as walking arm in arm down the street, taking a bike lock to work, or tying up your dog outside a cafe will place the public at risk of arrest, prosecution and imprisonment,” Steele said.
Mark Johnson, legal and policy officer at Big Brother Watch, said the powers handed to police by the bill “could come straight from the pages of a dystopian novel”.
“It is notable that a number of Conservative MPs have even expressed their disdain for this breathtakingly authoritarian bill,” he said. “As the bill moves to the House of Lords, it is vital that peers act to protect civil liberties and force the home secretary to ditch the worst of her anti-protest plans.”
However, after the creation of a new tranche of Tory peers, it is unclear whether a broad enough coalition can be mustered to defeat the revived measures, despite consistent opposition from the Labour party.
The Green peer Jenny Jones called on Labour to again oppose the bill. “If a rebellion by the Lords in defence of civil liberties has any chance of defeating these police state laws then we need the Labour party to oppose the government on this,” she said. “These new powers won’t just be used against environmental protesters, but all campaigners for social justice and those who want a change to government policy.
“The Lords have an opportunity to oppose this government’s headlong rush to trash our legal safeguards, our right to effective protest and impose a Putin-style democracy.”
The Guardian has contacted the Home Office for comment.