Free speech latest: New law ‘could see street preachers banned’

A new law which is currently making its way through Parliament is so far-reaching that it could lead to Christian street preachers being banned.

Monday, 22nd March 2021, 3:32 pm
'Hamburg Famous Street Preacher' by Mark Nieno (licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0)

That is the view of barrister-turned-politician Gavin Robinson, speaking after the bill in question cleared its latest hurdle in the House of Commons last week.

The bill, called the Police Crime and Sentencing Bill, is being driven by the Tory government in response mainly to the Extinction Rebellion protests of 2019, and the disruption they brought to London.

Despite growing opposition to the bill from activist groups in society and Labour-led attempts to derail it, it comfortably passed its second stage in the Commons thanks to the dominance of the Conservatives in the chamber.

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Although the bill’s scope is limited to England, Mr Robinson said laws created in England are often “predictive” of laws which the devolved regions later enact.

Part three of the bill amends the Public Order Act 1986 so police can impose conditions on protests that are noisy enough to cause “intimidation or harassment” or “serious unease, alarm or distress” to bystanders, including protests consisting of one person.

It would also abolish the common law offence of public nuisance and replace it with a statutory offence of “intentionally or recklessly causing public nuisance”.

Mr Robinson said the scope of the new law is “incredibly loose”.

“The ability of the police to curtail what is an Article 11 right within the Human Rights Act, the ability to assemble and protest, is really quite extraordinary.

“I understand the government’s intention behind it; where you have somebody standing in front of a subway train shutting down the subway system, the police need greater powers to stop that.

“I think the aspiration with what they want to do is right.

“But how it’s been presented in the text of the legislation is so open-ended it could be used for a whole myriad of what would be sensible, normal, lawful protest.”

Asked if it could be used to shut up Christian street preachers, for example, he replied: “Could be. If they were to cause enough noise or annoyance, yes.

“Protest can be constrained at the moment if it’s likely to lead to a breach of the peace. [But] this is quite a broad-blush blanket ban.”

David Smyth, head of the NI branch of the Evangelical Alliance, said he wanted to study the bill in more detail, but that “as an organisation generally we believe that the freedom to express your belief and opinions and freedom to protest are cornerstones of society”.

The right to voice your beliefs should “only be curtailed in the most serious of circumstances,” he told the News Letter.

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