Many constituents have taken the time to contact me in relation to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill. Thanks for taking the time to get in touch on such an important and emotive issue and I do hope this statement will answer as many of your questions as possible.
First, I was appalled by the scenes we saw at the Clapham vigil for Sarah Everard. Given the tragic circumstances of her dreadful loss and the testimony we’ve heard from countless women enduring harassment and unwelcome attention, I share the shock that many have felt.
Given that, I want to explain clearly why I supported the Police, Crime and Sentencing Bill in Parliament. I’m sure some may suggest I sought to curry favour with the Government, or lacked the courage to do otherwise.
These are common accusations when I vote with the Government on any issue. But given that I’ve voted against the Government six times since Christmas (clearly having no problem with doing so when I think it right), I hope the illogicality of this approach is obvious. This species of confirmation bias – where any MP that votes with the Government is seen to have had the dictates of their conscience overridden by pressure and fear, while any MP that votes against is seen to have heroically spoken truth to power – obviously makes the objective consideration of legislation difficult. It doesn’t reflect my experience of being an MP in the least, and is particularly inaccurate in a case of this kind where several complex issues (legislative and moral) are entangled.
As with every Bill, I’ve examined it carefully in order to vote according to my judgement as to what is best. Others may disagree, but that means nothing other than that their view differs from mine. And given some of the more extraordinary assertions we’ve heard - that this Bill will suppress protest and demonstrations, that it represents creeping totalitarianism or that it endangers women - I fully appreciate the concerns of those who’ve been in touch to ask that I oppose it. But it does none of this.
Perhaps most topical are those objections which centre around the scenes of police using force excessively and disproportionately. The powers used by the Met in Clapham were conferred upon them by the Coronavirus regulations around gatherings. It was my fear of just this type of spectacle (among other things) that led me to be one of only sixteen MPs to vote against them in defiance of the Government in January. And I continue to lobby the Government for the removal of those emergency powers.
My objection to the wide-ranging nature of those regulations has only hardened over the last few months as a steady stream of ludicrous incidents - friends being arrested for enjoying a socially-distanced coffee in an outdoor space, police querying the necessity of Easter Egg purchases, some protests being dispersed while others are benevolently approved - have emerged into the public consciousness.
But it is extremely important to remember that the Bill before the House this week is not related to these regulations.
To be clear, the emergency powers under the Coronavirus regulations are entirely separate and must not be confused with the Bill. But they are being confused with it. And there is a deliberate attempt to ensure they are. The flames of public discontent have been fanned this week as the Opposition have declared that the Bill, in their view, does not achieve a balance that is “fair”. But it is difficult to reconcile that with the fact that, until Saturday’s vigil on Clapham Common, they had no plans to oppose the Bill at all, albeit that they sought some usual amendments planned for second and third readings.
But feelings are naturally running high. The issue of women’s safety has been attracting enormous and overdue attention, and has cast this Bill in a new, and somewhat misleading light. The Bill is not a reaction to the events in Clapham, but has been part of the legislative agenda for some time. It is not a knee-jerk attempt to quell politically-motivated unrest, but a piece of legislation that aims to bring clarity to issues which have been raised by, among others, the Law Society and House of Lords for several years.
And interestingly, the Bill itself actually contains a number of provisions that are aimed squarely at strengthening the rights of women – including increased sentences for those who infringe those rights.
But there are a couple of specific measures and specific phrases in the Bill that have excited particular anxiety.
The first is the law around Public Nuisance and the offence of causing annoyance to a section of the public. This has been represented as a new and dangerous step. Posts on social media (and even articles in the traditional media) have proclaimed that terms in the Bill such as “serious annoyance” have no legal definition or basis in law and are therefore either likely to be misused or are a covert attempt to exploit the vagaries of language and thereby stifle protest.
In fact, this concept is a long-standing part of British Common Law dating back to 1716 and continuing through landmark judgements throughout the nineteenth, twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Causing a public nuisance is already an offence against common law, with the possible penalty of imprisonment with no defined maximum time.
This was pivotal in a landmark judgement in the House of Lords as recently as 2005. And as part of that judgement, the House of Lords then recommended that the definition be more closely defined and regulated – a recommendation that has been echoed by the Law Society five years ago. So, far from representing a draconian crackdown on protest, this Bill codifies and - in fact - reduces the maximum penalty for such an offence. This clarity is long overdue: a viewpoint that, until days ago, enjoyed cross-party support. Reading the section on public nuisance and serious annoyance in the Bill, it is clear that it is no more than an adaptation of existing common law. The Government is codifying existing law while also reducing the maximum penalty under it. To see this as “criminalising peaceful protest”, as some on social media have suggested, is to either show (understandable) unawareness of existing law or a disingenuous desire to inflame the fears of others.
In addition, there’s been a hugely misleading juxtaposition doing the rounds equating “ten years for defacing a statue” with “five years for rape”. This comparison is deeply cynical and, especially given the seriousness of the issue being discussed, potentially harmful to an enormously vulnerable group of people. It compares the maximum sentence for one crime with the minimum for the other. There is, in fact, no offence of “defacing a statue” and nor does the Bill introduce one. Criminal damage does carry a maximum sentence of ten years but under sentencing guidelines, the absolute maximum to be imposed is four years. And, to look at the other side of the argument, the absolute minimum for rape is five years. And the maximum is life.
Importantly, I must emphasise that - contrary to some rather hysterical campaigning - there is obviously nothing in the Bill with the intent or possibility of preventing protest or demonstration. Any reading of the Bill will reveal that it purely hopes to minimise some of the hugely disruptive behaviour - disruption of ambulances getting the sick to hospitals, obstructing people getting to work by gluing people to bridges, blockades of newspaper deliveries and workings of the free press, damaging the fountains at Trafalgar Square and other monuments with huge clean up costs, and so on. There’s a balance to strike (as ever in politics) between the right to protest – which we must protect – and the right to create enormous problems and cost for others by doing so.
I realise this is a rather long reply, but it barely touches the surface of what’s become a politically motivated and emotive tangle around a complex and important Bill. I know that, as the Bill passes through its stages in Parliament, there will be amendments, some of which I will consider supporting. So, just as the Opposition had originally planned to do, I supported the Bill’s passage through this first main stage.
I do sincerely hope this helps give some clarity around my thinking and assures you - if nothing more - that my vote followed careful thought and reasoning.