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New government urged to scrap anti-protest laws to restore freedom of expression

LABOUR was urged today to scrap Tory anti-protest laws and reject harmful rhetoric used to stigmatise peaceful demonstrations.

Peace, pro-Palestine, environmental and civil liberties groups called on ministers to champion the rights to free speech by repealing the draconian legislation aimed at silencing dissent.

Amnesty International led the calls as it published a new report warning of an increasingly wide range of means to quash peaceful demonstrations and silence free speech across Europe. 

It called on Home Secretary Yvette Cooper to urgently scrap the public order elements of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act as well as the entirety of the Public Order Act and the Serious Disruption Regulations.

Kerry Moscogiuri, of Amnesty International UK, said: “The new government must seize this moment to halt the alarming march towards repression in the UK by repealing the anti-protest laws pushed through by the previous government and ending the harmful rhetoric being used to stigmatise those who peacefully protest.

“The police should be facilitating peaceful demonstrations, not stopping them before they’ve even begun.

“The UK has a long and proud history of protest: from anti-apartheid protests, to marches for climate action and protests calling out the devastating atrocities in Gaza.

“Many mass demonstrations have exposed previous governments [as] on the wrong side of history.

“In a world where we are grappling with increasing inequality, discrimination, racism, armed conflict and climate change, protest is more essential than ever for people to call out and challenge those in power and seek justice.

“The right to peacefully protest is a fundamental human right for a free and fair society, not an optional extra.”

The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act in 2022 handed police in England and Wales broad powers to shut down protests and expanded criminal offences and punishments for peaceful protest activities.

This was followed by the Public Order Act 2023 and Serious Disruption Regulations 2023, which gave police carte blanche to impose restrictions on almost any demonstration it deemed “seriously disruptive.”

Hundreds of protesters have been arrested and given heavy custodial terms under the laws.

Tory ministers said environmental activists were “a threat to our way of life” and “using guerilla tactics,” while pro-Palestine protests were denounced as “hate marches” and “mobs” by former home secretary Suella Braverman.

Just Stop Oil said its street protests will grow along with the devastating effects of climate change, adding: “Therefore, the only effective way for governments to silence dissent is to act decisively on these multiple crises we face.”

Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC) director Ben Jamal said the new Labour government should signal that it will reconsider these restrictions and overhaul the legislation to protect cherished freedoms such as the right to protest.

Following 16 major demonstrations against Israel’s genocide in Gaza since October 2023, he said: “We have seen close up the effects of the restrictions placed on the right to protest — from the imposition of unnecessary orders by the police on where and when people can gather to arbitrary arrests over placards and signs.

“The direction of travel in the last few years has been to degrade fundamental democratic norms.”

Stop the War Coalition convener Lindsey German warned that the right to protest continues to be challenged by police under the Labour government.

She said last Saturday’s national Palestine demonstration, the first under its regime, saw the Met Police threaten to “impose significant restrictions on our ability to march in the vicinity of Parliament.”

“We believed the key aim of this was to ensure the new government was not confronted with the views of hundreds of thousands of people demanding an end to Israel’s slaughter of civilians and an end to arms to Israel,” she said.

“But we did march, peacefully as ever, on Parliament, sending a clear message that whoever is inside that place, we will be outside, whether Starmer repeals the restrictions or not.”

Liberty’s policy and campaigns officer Jodie Beck added: “We all have the right to be able to stand up for what we believe in, and protest is one of the most precious and time-old ways of doing so.

“The new government must make the positive case for protest, recognising the huge benefit to our society when people make their voices heard — from Votes for Women to Pride. 

“Being able to protest isn’t a privilege, it is a hard-fought right we must hold dear.” 

A spokeswoman for Momentum said: “The Tories implemented draconian measures, such as Public Order Bill and the Police, Crime, Sentencing & Courts Act, in a desperate bid to stifle dissent.

“That’s not all. Curbing the right to protest, vote, strike and seek asylum will haunt the Tories’ legacy for years to come. The Labour Leadership pledged to reverse the anti-strike bill if elected to Government - but it must go further.

“We urge the Home Secretary to reverse Britain's lurch towards authoritarianism by repealing all repressive Tory laws under the new Labour government, and stand up for our democratic rights.”

The Home Office was contacted for comment. Ms Cooper voted with her party against both the anti-protest Bills.

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