The Queen’s Speech to Parliament 2021

By May 26, 2021No Comments

The government intends to both protect and prohibit speech


On Tuesday 11 May, Her Majesty the Queen summarised the government’s agenda for the year ahead through her State re-opening of parliament. Around 30 new bills were circulated for imminent debate by parliament, and ‘speech’ was a theme that ran through a handful of these proposals.

To discuss the potentially chilling impact on freedom of speech and freedom of assembly of the controversial Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, ADF UK’s legal counsel Jeremiah Igunnubole and the Good Counsel Network’s director, Clare McCullough, spoke at the ADF UK webinar hosted on Friday 14 May.

Unfortunately, this bill shows that the government has chosen the path of greater restriction when it comes to public speech, placing the public expression of a group or an individual in the hands of police discretion. The government’s message to the public is that greater control and conditions are necessary to manage and tame some types of public expression that frustrates other people.

The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill wording is very vague

Introduced by Priti Patel earlier on this year, the proposed legislation seeks to widen a twenty-five-year-old law which allows public demonstrations to be restricted only when serious public disorder, damage, or serious disruption is caused. The new proposals give the police much wider-ranging powers, including the authority to stop demonstrations if the noise level “may cause [people] to suffer serious unease, alarm or distress” and indict the speakers.

“Yet, an important question is who would become the arbiter of ‘unease’ or public annoyance?”

The bill further criminalises any act or omission causing or potentially causing “serious annoyance or inconvenience” and other such broad and vague provisions. These provisions risk providing police officers with wide discretionary power to criminalise practically any form of protest. As Igunnubole quoted in the webinar, “one person’s ‘unease’ could well be another person’s creed”.

Yet, an important question is who would become the arbiter of ‘unease’ or public annoyance? The concepts are so subjective that they offend against the core principles of the rule of law, including intelligibility, clarity, and predictability. It is almost impossible to predict in advance whether the police would consider an outdoor activity to cause ‘serious unease’ in advance; if they do, this gathering could be restricted or stopped.

The bill gives broad powers

In addition to the vague wording of the proposed legislation, the bill also grants broad powers to public officials.

  • First, it permits senior police officers to place any conditions on protest that they deem to be necessary – including a complete ban of a specific protest.
  • Second, it assigns more power to the Secretary of State to define, through regulations, what amounts to criminal protest.

An option is therefore open for ‘unpopular’ types of protests to be targeted.

The bill could have very wide ranging consequences

During the webinar, ADF UK’s legal counsel outlined a further three consequences that the bill could have on individuals who breach its vague and broad provisions.

First, the bill imposes much stricter sentencing than any previous protest legislation. Breaching a condition imposed by police could mean 51 weeks in prison – a drastic sentencing uplift from the previous maximum sentence of 3 months. Moreover, and even more unsettling, the court may now impose a sentence of up to 10 years imprisonment for breach of the new public nuisance provisions.

Secondly, the bill includes the possibility of a one-man protest in its provisions. If passed into law, activities by individuals on the streets could be classed by police officers as a ‘protest’, thereby permitting the imposition of restrictions.

Thirdly, the bill is likely to face several, more intrusive, amendments to its text. As a pertinent example, Labour MP Rupa Huq  tabled an amendment to create “buffer zones” nationally. While she has previously, unsuccessfully, attempted to introduce these intrusive measures, which essentially impose an extremely sizeable geographic radius around abortion centres so that peaceful, praying organisations such as the Good Counsel Network are prevented from locating themselves anywhere near the entrance to the facility, this bill provides a suitable framework for her amendment. If brought into law, such ‘buffer zones’ would mean that there will be areas across the UK where people would not be able to offer help, protest, or even pray.

The bill could infringe human rights law

Despite lawyers testifying to parliament a few weeks ago that this bill would infringe human rights law and have a chilling impact on free speech, the Queen’s Speech confirmed that the government is committed to expanding police powers.

“Yet, an important question is who would become the arbiter of ‘unease’ or public annoyance?”

Worryingly, in doing so, the government has forgotten that human rights law upholds the rights of individuals to private and public expression. Central to this is the long-standing right of people to assemble in public. A recent case from the highest court in Europe affirmed that all countries in the Council of Europe (including the UK) should uphold assembly, including the right to protest, even if it includes others being annoyed or offended by converse opinions.

Interference with this right by the State is a “disservice to democracy” and a danger to it. It also goes directly against Policing Minister Kit Malthouse’s promise last summer that his government will never curtail protest.

In summary

Certain provisions of the bill present a grave threat to freedom of speech and assembly in the UK. If passed into law, the interpretation of the broad and vague provisions could have a seriously chilling impact on civil liberties, and the criminal sanctions attached to breaching the law could be disproportionately excessive. ADF UK expressed concern with the wide-reaching impacts of the proposed legislation in the webinar.

It’s also important to note that it’s not just religiously-affiliated groups and individuals who have reacted against the bill in the name of freedom of speech. Leading human rights experts have been shocked by its implications; civil liberty groups such as It waits to be seen if the government will yield to the pressure and ensure that the proposals do not unduly restrict fundamental rights of speech and protest.

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