Freedom of assembly and speech are fundamental rights that “are hard won but easily lost”, Congleton MP Fiona Bruce has said, expressing concern about the Government’s controversial Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill.
The MP, recently appointed by Boris Johnson as the Government’s special envoy for freedom of religion or belief, found herself criticising her own Government for proposing a law that could curtail protests based on religious belief – and siding with those on the left who fear the Bill could limit the freedom of speech and protest in this country.
She has called for scrutiny and review of the Bill at its House of Lords and committee stages.
Speaking in the House of Commons on 16th March, Mrs Bruce told Parliamentarians: “Freedom of assembly and of expression are fundamental rights that are hard-fought and hard-won but easily lost or damaged if we legislate in haste.
“I want to focus on the clauses (that) would make significant changes to police powers to respond to protest, significantly (lowering) the legal test for the police to issue conditions on protest.
“The term ‘serious unease’ is a significant departure, reducing the test for the threshold of harm so as to potentially capture peaceful protest that a claimant considers objectionable.”
She said that clause 54, which gives the Government powers to define the meaning of “serious disruption to the activities of an organisation” could “significantly curtail” the activities of groups such as peaceful pro-life vigils outside abortion centres.
She said that organisations such as the British Pregnancy Advisory Service and MSI (Marie Stopes) complained of harassment or intimidation, but said this was “rarely, if ever”, supported by evidence.
She said: “The test of ‘serious disruption’ could remove the objectivity normally required for criminal prosecution and place the emphasis instead on the perception of an organisation.
“This has potentially far-reaching implications for the fundamental rights of those with non-mainstream views to assemble and express their views, and it is incumbent on this House to defend those rights, however much we approve or disapprove of such views.”
She added: “Removing intentionality from the offence of failing to comply with a condition issued by the police on a protest means that the police will be able to enforce the law based on their subjective interpretation of what the alleged offender should have known.
“Allowing the police to issue conditions on one-person protests, rather than the current two, potentially brings into scope street preachers,” she said, though she added that prosecutions against street preachers, “invariably failed” due to falling foul of freedom of speech rights.
The Bill has also attracted publicity for its plan to introduce prison sentences of up to 10 years for people who damage statues – though of course any sentence is at the discretion of magistrates.
The Chronicle asked Mrs Bruce how she felt about the fact that the maximum sentence for hate crime against religious belief was seven years while the new Bill proposed 10 years for damaging an inanimate object.
Mrs Bruce said: “The Government’s rationale for this follows widespread upset about the damage or desecration of war memorials and other statues, and there is concern that the current law does not allow the courts to deal effectively with the damage or desecration of war memorials and other statues.
“Statues commemorating individuals and events of historical or cultural significance (might suffer) damage of low monetary value but a high sentimental and emotional impact.
“The Bill would toughen the law where criminal damage is caused to a memorial by removing the consideration of monetary value – which would otherwise determine venue and limit sentencing powers – effectively increasing the maximum sentence from three months to 10 years’ imprisonment for criminal damage.
“These changes will allow the court to consider all the impacts, not just financial, so that the sentence can reflect the full range of harm caused.”