UNITED KINGDOM: Government plans major crackdown in 2021 on the right to protest

Article originally published by The Network of Police Monitoring on 26 November 2020

The Conservative government is planning to introduce major changes to public order legislation to crack down on protests, under a new “Protection of the Police and Public Bill” planned for 2021.

In September, Home Secretary Priti Patel denounced environmental campaigners Extinction Rebellion as “so-called eco-crusaders turned criminals” at the Police Superintendents’ Association conference and, at the Conservative Party conference in early October, accused Black Lives Matter campaigners of “hooliganism and thuggery”.

Patel also asked Sir Tom Winsor, the HM Chief Inspector of Constabulary, for a thematic review of “how effectively the police manage protests”. The inspectorate delivered an initial response to the Home Secretary in a letter on 20 November, with a full review report expected in February 2021.

What has emerged from the consultation period on the review, with inspectors talking to a variety of interested parties (including Netpol), is that “effectively managing protest” appears to mean, as it so often in the past, the introduction of new police powers.

The impetus for seeking changes to legislation comes primarily from the senior ranks of the police, however, rather than the Home Secretary. In October last year, Metropolitan Police Deputy Assistant Commissioner Laurence Taylor, said:

“We have been engaged with the Home Office around a number of asks in relation to the legislation. This work is at an early stage, but includes looking at what constitutes serious disruption, and how Sections 12 and 14 of the Public Order Act may be more aligned.

Netpol understands the government now intends to deliver on the police’s wish list of new powers by submitting a bill to Parliament next year, on the back of an expected favourable review report.

This will seek to amend the current Public Order Act 1986 in three ways.

The proposed changes
  • Firstly, the government wants to amend Section 14 of the Public Order Act, which currently gives a senior officer the power to impose conditions of a static assembly including the place it is held, its maximum duration and the maximum number of participants.It seems the intention is to broaden these powers so they are more like those available for processions, which also allow the police to prohibit a demonstration from entering any specified public place.It was the decision by the Metropolitan Police in October 2019 to unlawfully impose a blanket condition using Section 14 to prohibit various XR protests across the whole of London that was successfully challenged in the High Court.
  • Secondly, the government plans to change the wording of powers that impose conditions on protests so that they are no longer for “serious disruption to the life of the community” but for “significant disruption”.This would provide senior police officers with greater flexibility to use these powers, although lowing the threshold for imposing restrictions does not automatically mean the police can “manage” a protest to their advantage. In April 2019, police issued numerous Section 14 notices against Extinction Rebellion protesters, who refused to comply with them. The proposed changes are simply more likely to give the police the chance to start earlier making a greater number of arrests.
  • Thirdly, the government intends to introduce new grounds for using stop and search powers in order to “prevent significant disruption”, which could include searches for items that protesters could potentially use for direct action or civil disobedience, such as D-locks or climbing equipment.This would represent a significant expansion of stop and search powers and encourage front-line police officers to search everyone even vaguely associated with a particular protest, just as Kent Police officers did (unlawfully) at Kingsnorth Climate Camp back in 2008.
The right to protest needs protecting

All these proposed changes were floated to sympathetic media in October 2019 in the aftermath of the Extinction Rebellion protests in London and, if implemented, represent a major assault on the right to protest.

As campaign groups have recently made overwhelmingly clear, the ability of people to collectively take to the streets in opposition to government policy does not need managing, it needs protecting.

The Home Secretary has repeatedly shown her open hostility towards protest groups. Even before any new changes are made, the police are already interpreting what they see as “peaceful” protest so that even minor breaches of the law are treated as invalidating the collective legitimacy of protesters’ demands. The proposed amendments to public order legislation next year are likely to lead to even more aggressive tactics and in turn, to justify more surveillance on campaigners.

As solicitor Mike Schwarz said last year, “police powers and criminal offences are just levers in the hands of the State in its struggle to maintain order and win”.

This is why Netpol is currently arguing for stronger protections and a Charter of Freedom of Assembly Rights. In the face of a draconian, politically-motived crackdown, we need a clear reminder that the police still have a legal duty to both facilitate and safeguard our rights.