Thank you for contacting me about the Elections Bill and the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill. I have addressed each Bill below:
Our democracy is admired around the world for its values that have been upheld for generations. I recognise the importance of ensuring that those values are robustly defended.
That is why the Elections Bill will put British citizens’ participation at the heart of democracy and support voters in making free and informed choices at elections. Measures will address postal vote harvesting, introduce digital imprints, as well as require a photographic ID before voting at a General Election – a requirement in Northern Ireland since 2003.
I understand concerns about civil society organisations (CSOs) being prevented from adding their voice to the debate but let me assure you that this would not be the case. I recognise the important role CSOs play in providing valuable information on a variety of policies. The Bill instead aims to make elections fairer and more transparent by requiring greater transparency from campaigners.
Clauses 24 of the Bill, for instance, would require third party campaigns to give notice to the Electoral Commission at a lower level of expenditure that is currently required. Clause 25 would require campaign spending, which is part of a joint plan between a registered party and a third party or parties, to be counted as part of the spending limits of all parties involved.
I believe that joint campaigning has an important role to play in our electoral system but it should be transparently and fairly regulated, particularly when it could be regarded as intending to achieve a common purpose.
Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill
I understand your concerns about the proposed new powers to deal better with protests.
As I have made very clear, freedom of assembly and freedom of expression are vital rights that I wholeheartedly support, and I can reassure you that the Government is clear that the right of an individual to express their opinion and protest is a cornerstone to our democratic society. This Bill does not ban people’s rights to protest as many have falsely claimed.
The issue at hand relates to the balance between the rights of a protestor and the rights of individuals to go about their daily business. There have been examples where protests have caused unjustifiable disruption and distress to other citizens. For example, some of the scenes we saw from the Extinction Rebellion protests, where ambulances were stopped from reaching hospitals and efforts to prevent the printing of newspapers, were deeply troubling and concerning.
Therefore, the measures in the Bill are not about stopping or clamping down on right to protest but ensuring the police can better manage highly disruptive protests and maintain the balance I have outlined.
You may ask how protesters’ rights will be protected. It is the case that when using these powers, or existing public order powers, the police must act within the law. Importantly, the police must be able to demonstrate that their use of powers are necessary and proportionate. It is also clear that the police must act compatibly with human rights, in particular Article 10 (freedom of expression) and Article 11 (freedom of association).
I am aware that much has been said regarding the proposed public nuisance offence. As you may be aware, Clause 59 gives effect to recommendations made by the Law Commission in their July 2015 Report on 'Simplification of the Criminal Law: Public Nuisance and Outraging Public Decency'. The report stated that the common law offence of public nuisance should be replaced by a statutory offence covering any conduct which endangers the life, health, property or comfort of a section of the public or obstructs them in the exercise of their rights. You can find the Law Commission report on this issue at the following link - https://s3-eu-west-2.amazonaws.com/lawcom-prod-storage-11jsxou24uy7q/uploads/2015/06/lc358_public_nuisance.pdf.
Importantly, the new statutory offence of public nuisance will cover the same conduct as the existing common law offence of public nuisance.
It has also been claimed that this Bill will “criminalise noisy protests, ban protests outside the UK Parliament and crack down on harmless one-person protests”. This is incorrect. This Bill will not criminalise any of the above.
I fully understand your strong feelings on this issue and you were right to ensure I was made aware of these. I hope this response has outlined clearly the changes in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill relating to the management of protests and has put to bed any myths about banning or restricting the right to protest.
Thank you again for contacting me about these matters.