Right to protest 'not absolute' says UK PM Rishi Sunak ahead of new legislation

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By Andrea Carlo
Handcuffed activisits from the group Just Stop Oil lie on the road as they are arrested after they blocked a road in London. Thursday, 27 October 2022
Handcuffed activisits from the group Just Stop Oil lie on the road as they are arrested after they blocked a road in London. Thursday, 27 October 2022   -   Copyright  Kirsty Wigglesworth/Copyright 2022 The AP. All rights reserved

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak wants to expand a bill that would give police even greater powers to clamp down on "disruptive" public protests. 

Downing Street issued a press release on Monday announcing an amendment to the Public Order Bill -- passed by MPs last October -- to "broaden the legal definition of 'serious disruption'" and allow police to pre-emptively intervene in protests before "chaos erupts."

Such revisions would expand the existing bill, which strengthens law enforcement's reach and makes it illegal for people to chain themselves to buildings, and itself builds upon the controversial Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act enacted last year.

Sunak has defended the amendment by claiming the right to protest was "not absolute," while still recognising that such right remained a "fundamental principle of our democracy."

"We cannot have protests conducted by a small minority disrupting the lives of the ordinary public," the Conservative PM said late on Sunday. "It's not acceptable and we're going to bring it to an end."

Sunak's new proposals were forged in the midst of a wave of strikes and rallies in British cities, especially London, that some have dubbed a new "winter of discontent".

Public sector workers and climate activists have taken to the streets to voice their disapproval of government policy, the latter of whom have been responsible for various public disturbances -- namely the closure of important thoroughfares in the country's capital.

The Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police Service, Sir Mark Rowley, lent his support to the government plan, claiming the "clarity" of the proposed new rules would "create a clearer line for the police to enforce when protests impact upon others who simply wish to go about their lawful business."

But critics of the Public Order Bill -- itself widely condemned as a draconian assault on the UK’s democratic rights -- have denounced the amendment as adding further fuel to the fire, potentially leading to law enforcement overreach.

"The Public Order Bill is already deeply illiberal," tweeted barrister and human rights expert, Adam Wagner. "Now the [government] want to make it even easier for police to prevent protest - even where they suspect there will be serious disruption."

Wagner further remarked that such new powers could complicate the police’s activities by "involving them in political disputes."

The specific text of the government's amendment is yet to be revealed, as the Public Order Bill approaches its final parliamentary hurdle at the House of Lords.

Additional sources • Reuters