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Sunday, 23 June 2024
Civil liberties groups call police plans for demos an 'assault' on right to protest

Report comes shortly after proposal of new laws granting more powers to officers and the home secretary

Civil liberties campaigners have warned of a “staggering assault” on the right to protest, as police detailed how they would enforce controversial government proposals to restrict demonstrations.

On Thursday, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services (HMICFRS) published its plans for the future of policing protests, two days after the government announced proposed new laws granting more powers to officers and the home secretary.

Among other things, the police, crime, sentencing and courts bill will give Priti Patel powers to create laws to define “serious disruption” to communities and organisations, which police can then rely on to impose conditions on protests.

The HMICFRS report, ordered by Patel following Extinction Rebellion (XR) and Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests, outlines a “need to develop” covert intelligence gathering methods and an expectation of increased use of facial recognition technology, despite a court of appeal ruling last year that its use in south Wales breached privacy rights and broke equalities law.

The report also supports expanding stop and search “to prevent serious disruption caused by protests”, amid concerns over discriminatory use of the power.

Emmanuelle Andrews, policy and campaigns officer at Liberty, said: “These plans are a staggering assault on our right to protest as well as an attack on other fundamental rights.

“Police already have extensive powers to restrict protests, and frequently go beyond them even though it is their duty to facilitate the exercise of this right.

“We are still in the grip of a pandemic that has changed all our lives, handed enormous powers to the government and dramatically restricted our protest rights. The proposals in the policing bill are an opportunistic bid from the government to permanently erode our rights.

“We must reject the politics of division that the government is exploiting through this bill, and protect each other and our ability to stand up to power.”

The bill also allows for police to impose conditions such as start and finish times and maximum noise levels on static protests – powers officers already have in relation to marches.

But the HMICFRS wants the rules to be even more closely aligned with those for marches, by forcing organisers of static protests to provide advance notice of their plans and enabling police to ban assemblies, with the consent of the home secretary, if the imposition of conditions would not be sufficient to prevent serious public disorder.

Kevin Blowe, campaigns coordinator of the police monitoring group Netpol, criticised the report as “alarming and illiberal” and “essentially a series of recommendations on how you can massively expand surveillance on protest movements at a time when the government has decided that it’s going to crack down on those protests”.

The report is the first to feature the term “aggravated activists” instead of “domestic extremists”, the use of which Netpol campaigned against for almost a decade. It defines aggravated activists as “those who commit protest-related crime or unlawful behaviour. The most frequent level of aggravated activism associated with protests is low.”

Alanna Byrne, of XR, said similar labels were applied in the past to other groups “on the right side of history”, adding: “Priti Patel can try and make the UK a protest-free zone but it’s clear that the government is not going to do the right thing without protesters holding them to account so we don’t plan on stopping anytime soon.”

Announcing the bill, the Home Office said the new laws would “enable police to better tackle unauthorised encampments, and safely manage protests where they threaten public order or stop people from getting on with their daily lives”.

Matt Parr, from HMICFRS, said: “The right to gather and express our views is fundamental to our democracy. But this is not an absolute right. The police need to strike the correct balance between the rights of protesters and the rights of others, such as local residents and businesses.

“We found that the police too often do not find the balance between protecting the rights of the protesters and preventing excessive disruption to daily life, which even peaceful protest can sometimes cause.”

source: Haroon Siddique