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UK seeks stronger powers to stop disruptive protests

A handout photograph released by the UK Parliament shows Britain's Prime Minister Rishi Sunak speaking at the Despatch box during Prime Minister's Questions (PMQs) in the House of Commons in London on Jan 11, 2023. (JESSICA TAYLOR / UK PARLIAMENT / AFP)

LONDON – Prime Minister Rishi Sunak's government will on Monday announce new proposals to clamp down on protests, broadening the range of situations in which police are able to act to prevent serious disruption.

In recent years, protests, usually on environmental issues, have shut down large parts of central London and blocked traffic on key highways, leading to calls for the police to have more power to stop the disturbance.

The government passed legislation to address this in 2022, but is planning to go further with a new set of laws known as the Public Order Bill.

We cannot have protests conducted by a small minority disrupting the lives of the ordinary public. It’s not acceptable and we’re going to bring it to an end.

Rishi Sunak, UK’s Prime Minister

The bill was published last year and is currently in the final stages of debate in parliament. It has drawn heavy criticism from civil rights groups who say it is anti-democratic and gives police too much power.

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The government wants to amend the Public Order Bill before it becomes law to broaden the legal definition of 'serious disruption', give police more flexibility, and provide legal clarity on when the new powers could be used.

"The right to protest is a fundamental principle of our democracy, but this is not absolute," Sunak said in a statement late on Sunday.

"We cannot have protests conducted by a small minority disrupting the lives of the ordinary public. It’s not acceptable and we’re going to bring it to an end."

The government says the new laws, if passed, will mean police can shut down disruptive protests preemptively.

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The bill already includes the creation of a criminal offense for those who seek to lock themselves to objects or buildings, and allows courts to restrict the freedoms of some protesters to prevent them causing serious disruption.

It builds on the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act, passed in April 2022, which sparked several large 'kill the bill' protests.