Sir Julian Lewis: I have a lot of time for the hon. Lady [Alison Thewliss], and therefore I will share with her a guilty secret: 41 years ago, I was arrested for mounting a noisy counter-protest against a CND-sponsored demonstration against the Falklands taskforce that was on its way to the South Atlantic. The police recognised that they had gone a bit far. Nevertheless, when we did future rooftop counter-demonstrations, they would monitor the amount of noise we made and tell us, “You go above that noise, and we’ll confiscate your equipment and possibly arrest you. You keep within reasonable bounds, and you can carry on.” Does she accept that there are ways of protesting that do not involve disrupting everybody else but get the case across, and that is how it should be?
Alison Thewliss: I am glad to find that somebody on the Government Benches has protested against something before. It must be true that you get more conservative as you get older. The difficulty with the point that the right hon. Gentleman is making is that, with reference to the offence of locking on, the [Public Order] Act talks about “serious disruption” to “two or more individuals”. That is a very, very low bar to set for disruption. When it comes to noisy protest, people are trying to make a noise – they are trying to draw attention to their cause. Restricting that in any way makes that incredibly difficult.
Sir Julian Lewis rose –
Alison Thewliss: I would like to make some progress. ...
Sir Julian Lewis: The Minister [for Crime, Policing and Fire (Chris Philp)] has just uttered the key argument I was hoping to hear from him, which is that even the right to protest is a qualified right, not an absolute right. I quote in support of that something I revere even more than the ECHR, John Stuart Mill’s “On Liberty”, which says:
“The only freedom which deserves the name is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it.”
That is where the absolute right is restricted to being a qualified right.
Chris Philp: My right hon. Friend and John Stuart Mill, the famous libertarian philosopher, are absolutely right. The right to protest, and indeed other rights, should not be enforced or enjoyed at the expense of other people. I know that the protesters think that they have an important and strong case, but that does not confer on them the right to ruin other people’s lives. It is not that they do so incidentally or accidentally as an unintended corollary of their protest; they are deliberately, intentionally and by design setting out to ruin other people’s lives. That is what the Government seek to prevent, and that is what this Act of Parliament seeks to do.
This Act of Parliament received Royal Assent only a short time ago having been through both Houses of Parliament. I think there was about a year between the Bill’s introduction and the completion of its passage. The Bill had extensive scrutiny in Committee and was subject to extended ping-pong. No one can say that it did not have extensive scrutiny. That is why it is extraordinary that the nationalists now seek to repeal an Act that received Royal Assent only a few weeks ago.
Sir John Hayes: I am extremely grateful to my right hon. Friend [Chris Philp] for giving way again. I do not, unlike my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Sir Julian Lewis), revere the European charter, the Human Rights Act or even John Stuart Mill.
Sir Julian Lewis: I was being ironic.
Sir John Hayes: I am pleased to hear that. ...
Sir Julian Lewis: I support a lot of the items on the list of measures the hon. Lady [Sarah Jones] has read out. Would she be prepared to add one more? Although protesters have a right to have their voice heard, that does not involve a right to make a huge amount of noise at enormously high volume, incessantly over substantial periods in the public space, any more than I would have a right to shout her down in this House if she had not given way to me.
Sir Julian Lewis: I have huge respect for the hon. and learned Lady [Joanna Cherry], who has been courageous in expressing her views on gender, with which I happen to agree. It is disgraceful that she has been cancelled and had her right to free speech infringed in many ways, but I put it to her that she is talking about people’s right to say what they want to say, rather than how they go about protesting, which is what the Public Order Act is about. She has every right to say what she wants to say, but does she have the right, for example, to use huge amplifiers in a public space for hours on end so that nobody can hear themselves think? The Act is not about content; it is about protests that infringe the right of others to go about their normal life.
Sir Julian Lewis: Surely it is a matter of context, even within the parameters of a single event such as the coronation. For example, a certain measure of vocal protest might be permissible out in the open air, but if someone had somehow got into the abbey itself while the coronation was in progress, and stood up and started shouting loudly that they disagreed with it, I would be very surprised if anyone on the Opposition Benches said that that person should be allowed to continue ad nauseam, irrespective of the offence and the disruption caused to everyone else.