The Public Order Act 2023, came into law on 3 May. The Act makes protest activities like slow marching, ‘locking on’ to public buildings or people, and blocking access to public transport and motorways a criminal offence. In addition, the Act grants greater powers to the police to arrest and end protests that could lead to disruption as well as extending powers to stop and search without cause or reason.

The final verse in Judges 21 paints an unsettling image where poor leadership and corrupt authority leads to chaos and disorder in society. The verse reads: In those days Israel had no king; all the people did whatever seemed right in their own eyes’.

Without agreement between authority and the people, civil unrest amongst the tribes of Israel persisted, idol practices were rife and the poor and most vulnerable in society were left without legal redress and neglected by those in power. The Bible teaches us that godly and good governance, leads to justice and reduces lawlessness in society.

The relationship between people and the government is vital for the health of any society. It is why Christians throughout history and across nations have prayed and campaigned for political systems and for those in power to introduce laws and policies where the dignity of life is valued, and where communities of difference can live together in peace. 

As evangelicals we must continue to advocate for good governance today, particularly where new policies could increase tensions between the police and the public.

Here we outline three controversial powers in the Act that could significantly undermine public confidence and trust in the government and police, if believed to be disproportionate or unfair.

1. The powers to arrest and end a protest

The act of protesting and the opportunity for individuals to assemble and campaign on a particular cause or injustice in society, are rights protected in domestic laws and international agreements the UK signed up to. 

The right to protest is a core aspect of any liberal democracy, but in recent years different protest tactics from campaign groups like Just Stop Oil and Extinction Rebellion have received strong criticism from the government and the general public. 

The Public Order Bill Act 2023, builds on the measures set out in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts (PCSC) Act 2022. Specifically, the Act:

  • Makes locking on’ or equipped to lock on’ to a building or another person a new criminal offence. 
  • Introduces a new offence — to obstruct transport or national infrastructures, where the penalty is six months imprisonment, unlimited fine or both.
  • Extends powers to the police to stop and search without cause or suspicion.
  • Gives powers to a magistrate court judge to use a serious disruption prevention order (SDPO)’ for someone 18 years and older. This power would restrict for example an individuals’ ability to take part in future protests or from being in a certain place. An SDPO carries a penalty of six months imprisonment, a fine or both.

Many Christians would agree with some of the provisions above and view them as reasonable and proportionate given how some protesters have caused public damage and significantly disrupted businesses and people’s journeys to and from work. But what about Christians engaged in street outreach and sharing the gospel with passers-by? Should the police have the right to end their activities and arrest them?

Worryingly, both this Act and the PCSC Act 2022, redefine the activity of protesting to a single individual or small gathering and so the law makes little distinction between a street evangelist and protests like Just Stop Oil. Instead, it is left to the discretion of the attending officer to judge how they will enforce the law.

Our concern is that under this Act passionate appeals for the gospel and sharing materials with passers-by might be misunderstood as political activism and individuals asked to move on or risk arrest.

Photo by Beautiful blossom on istock
I Stock 1413414748
Extinction Rebellion protesters in central London
"Policing is not anti-protest, but there is a difference between protest and criminal activism, and we are committed to responding quickly and effectively to activists who deliberately disrupt people’s lives through dangerous, reckless, and criminal acts."
Constable BJ Harrington
Chief Constable BJ Harrington
National Police Chiefs’ Council lead for public order and public safety

2. The power to stop and search without cause or reason

Trust between the Black community and the police remains at an all-time low. This is in part explained by the legacy of the Stephen Lawrence murder inquiry and subsequent reviews into police conduct and treatment towards Black and ethnic communities. 

Under the public duty in the Equalities Act 2010, it is against the law for the police to stop and search on the grounds of ethnicity and race. And yet the Home Office’s own reporting shows that individuals that identify as Black or Black British are searched at a rate of 6.2 times higher than those from a White ethnic group across England and Wales’.

A police officer with as little as two years’ experience in the role now has powers to stop and search an individual if they reasonably’ believe that they are carrying an item that would enable them to lock on or within a location on high-alert’. In addition, police constables have the power to stop and search an individual or vehicle without any foreknowledge that the individual is carrying something that could be used in a crime.

Following the police killing of Chris Kaba, the Black community and particularly young Black males already believe there is a racial bias when stop and search is used. The expanding powers to stop and search permitted in this Act will do little to restore confidence in policing.

3. The power to fine and arrest those within 150-metres of an abortion clinic

Back in February, I wrote an article abortion buffer zones – why we must continue to speak out’ on how the proposed Bill will affect women accessing alternative care within an abortion safe zone and the possibility of prayer vigils becoming a criminal offence. 

Despite the concerns raised by parliamentarians on the vague language used in the Bill and the unintended consequences in making prayer a criminal offence, the Act has introduced 150-metre safe access zones’ around abortion clinics across England and Wales where the act could carry an unlimited fine.

In conversation with Conservative MPs, they have assured us that they and other parliamentarians will continue to urge the home secretary to provide statutory guidance to the police to bring clarity as to how they will enforce the Act whilst avoiding unduly criminalising silent prayer and the freedom of thought.

It is important that Christians ministries who offer support to women in pregnancy crisis are aware of this new 150-metre buffer zone and seek out legal advice in how their community outreach projects should adapt to this change. We will publish an update on statutory guidance once received.

You can make a difference to the laws introduced in Westminster and the devolved parliaments by using our Connect resource. We produced these resources to create opportunity for your voice to be heard.