Government plans to shut down peaceful protest and intimidate trade unionists through restrictions on picketing were dealt a severe blow this week by the House of Lords.
The authoritarian measures, contained in the Police, Crime and Sentencing Bill, would have seen trade unionists and others facing prison terms of up to 51 weeks if convicted of “wilful obstruction of the highway”, “obstructing major transport works” or “interference with use or operation of key national infrastructure”.
However, while these new offences were removed from the draft legislation by the Lords, a number of other government amendments to the Bill voted down by peers will now return to the House of Commons for scrutiny and could be restored by MPs.
So, while Unite, which campaigned against the Bill alongside civil liberties organisations such as Liberty and Justice, welcomed the government’s defeat as a “good day for democracy”, the fight is by no means over.
General secretary Sharon Graham tweeted:
.@GOVUK‘s authoritarian plans to shut down peaceful protest and intimidate trade unionists through restrictions on picketing was voted down by the House of Lords. @unitetheunion will continue to vigorously defend our members rights to protest and picket when this bill returns.
— Sharon Graham (@UniteSharon) January 19, 2022
Some of the worst aspects of the Bill that were defeated could have seen Unite members, on strike for their jobs, pay and conditions, arrested if the police deemed their picket lines to be in breach of any of the new restrictions.
And, because the Bill applies only in England, these measures would have resulted in the ludicrous situation of workers in Scotland, for example, being able to peacefully picket outside a bus company depot while their colleagues in England risked falling foul of the law for doing so.
Measures that could be restored by MPs include the ability of the police to impose restrictions on public assemblies, including noise-based restrictions, and the criminalisation of one-person protests.
The House of Commons’ Joint Committee on Human Rights, which declared the Bill “oppressive and wrong”, noted that “noisy protests are the exercises of the lungs of a healthy democracy.” A picket line isn’t a picket line without megaphones and some healthy hollering, surely?
The original government amendments to the Bill that could yet return make no exceptions for industrial action and also allow for restrictions in terms of location, duration and size of meetings – in addition to existing constraints that already exist in the Public Order Act.
And while the Lords were able to weaken the offence of “wilful obstruction of the highway, it is now the “strategic road network”, which will easily be open to interpretation by police officers called by an employer to break up a picket line at their factory gates.
There were protests and demonstrations in many towns and cities against the Police, Crime and Sentencing Bill ahead of it reaching the House of Lords. The next stage of the campaign to defeat the remaining clauses that will impact on us all as trade union members will depend on what the government decides to put before MPs. But Unite is determined that our members’ right to strike will not be extinguished by a government hell bent on denying them a voice.
By Jennie Walsh
Pic by Hesther Ng, Getty Images