There are a number of Bills currently before Parliament with the potential to breach fundamental human rights. None have yet been finalised but we draw attention to them so that you can, where and when possible, take action. It is, for example, likely that the Bill of Rights – which we have featured in many Newsletters – will re-emerge, given both the Home Secretary and the Justice Minister oppose the Human Rights Act.
We commented on concerns about the Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill in the September Newsletter. This Bill is currently at its Second Reading in the House of Lords. Its significance is highlighted in the recent conviction for manslaughter of a former soldier for a death in Northern Ireland in 1988. The Bill would prevent further prosecutions of veterans.
The long-delayed Online Safety Bill is intended to regulate the internet, making it safer for users. At the time of writing, it is believed it will be debated on 5 and 6 December in the hope it will pass through the Commons by mid-January to ensure that the Lords has 10 weeks to review it before the parliamentary sessions ends. The Bill was carried over from the last parliamentary session and cannot be carried over a second time, so if agreement cannot be reached it will fail entirely. The NSPCC has warned that this would be ‘inexcusable for children and families’. It is not totally clear what the new Bill will look like. Some MPs opposed it, saying provisions would contravene freedom of speech, and they seem to have been successful in getting the previously proposed rules around ‘legal but harmful’ content, such as promoting self-harm or suicide, scrapped. The government has said that the Bill will strengthen child protection through tougher accountability and transparency rules (e.g. new users will have to prove their age to access sites, and companies will have to assess and publish the risk of potential harm to children) and gives users greater personal choice without affecting freedom of expression. But the opposition claim that the government has weakened and watered down the Bill.
We have mentioned in a previous Newsletter the case of British man Jagtar Singh Johal who is currently facing the death penalty in India based on a confession allegedly given under torture. His arrest was reportedly the result of a tip-off to the Indian government by MI5 and MI6. The National Security Bill, at its third reading in the House of Commons, gives immunity to ministers and officials for providing information to foreign states which could lead to someone being tortured or for encouraging or assisting crimes overseas. Reprieve and Liberty have both written to the Prime Minister asking him to reject these clauses. Calls to remove them are also backed by a cross-party group of MPs.
The Public Order Bill is currently at the Committee Stage in the House of Lords. In essence, it aims to fill the gaps in the provisions of the controversial Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022 and targets the activities of groups such as Extinction Rebellion and Just Stop Oil. It will become illegal to obstruct (including by sit-ins, gluing, or locking on to), or causing serious disruption to, infrastructure including major transport works like HS2 high-speed rail, plus roads, harbours, airports, railways, oil refineries, and newspaper printing presses. Plus it will extend stop-and-search powers so police can seize articles related to the new offences, including going equipped to lock on.
But the most Draconian new power is in Part 2 of the Bill which introduces Serious Disruption Prevention Orders (SDPOs), a new civil order that can be imposed on individuals who have participated in at least two protests within a five-year period, whether or not they were actually convicted of a crime. SDPOs last from a week to two years, with the potential for indefinite renewal. They are effectively ‘protest banning orders’ which could ban named individuals from protesting; associating with certain people at certain times; and using the internet in certain ways. Those subject to SDPOs may also be required to report to certain places at certain times; and undergo electronic monitoring. A person subject to a SDPO will commit a criminal offence if they fail without reasonable excuse to fulfil one of the requirements of the SDPO or violate one of the SDPO’s prohibitions.
SDPOs are unprecedented measures that will extinguish individuals’ fundamental right to protest as well as their ability to participate in a political community. They will also have the effect of subjecting individuals and wider communities to intrusive surveillance. The introduction of measures akin to SDPOs were not supported by the police, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services, or the Home Office. You can read a commentary on the Bill at https://commonslibrary.parliament.uk/research-briefings/cbp-9525/ and a briefing by Liberty at https://www.libertyhumanrights.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/Libertys-briefing-for-second-reading-of-the-Public-Order-Bill-in-the-House-of-Lords-November-2022-1.pdf