Monday 26 February 2024
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Police given wide-ranging powers to stop disruptive protests

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is backing the police to clamp down on ‘highly disruptive and dangerous protests’, under plans announced today.

Through an amendment tabled to the Public Order Bill, the Government will broaden the legal definition of ‘serious disruption’, giving police greater flexibility and clarity over when to intervene to stop the disruptive minority who use tactics such as blocking roads and slow marching to inflict misery on the public.

While the Government has already given police additional powers to prevent protestors from using guerrilla tactics, police chiefs have told the Prime Minister that there is some uncertainty over what reaches the threshold of ‘serious disruption’.

The changes introduced today will give police officers absolute clarity over when they should step in. In practice, this will mean:

  • police will not need to wait for disruption to take place and can shut protests down before chaos erupts
  • police will not need to treat a series of protests by the same group as standalone incidents but will be able to consider their total impact
  • police will be able to consider long-running campaigns designed to cause repeat disruption over a period of days or weeks

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said:

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“The right to protest is a fundamental principle of our democracy, but this is not absolute. A balance must be struck between the rights of individuals and the rights of the hard-working majority to go about their day-to-day business.

“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 police asked us for more clarity to crack down on these guerrilla tactics, and we have listened.”

Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police Service, Sir Mark Rowley said:

“The Met has a long history of policing protests, responding quickly and effectively to incidents involving crime and where serious disruption is caused, often in challenging situations. We have specialist officers trained to deal with a range of tactics, but this is complex time-consuming work.

“It is clearly understood that everybody has the right to protest. Increasingly however police are getting drawn into complex legal arguments about the balance between the right to protest and the rights of others to go about their daily lives free from serious disruption. The lack of clarity in the legislation and the increasing complexity of the case law is making this more difficult and more contested.

“It is for Parliament to decide the law, and along with other police chiefs, I made the case for a clearer legal framework in relation to protest, obstruction and public nuisance laws. We have not sought any new powers to curtail or constrain protest, but have asked for legal clarity about where the balance of rights should be struck.

“I welcome the government’s proposal to introduce a legal definition of “serious disruption” and “reasonable excuse”. In practical terms, Parliament providing such clarity will create a clearer line for the police to enforce when protests impact upon others who simply wish to go about their lawful business.”

National Police Chiefs’ Council Lead for Public Order and Public Safety, Chief Constable BJ Harrington, said:

“We welcome the constructive conversations with the government over more clearly defining serious disruption. This will support officers in confidently and quickly taking action and making arrests where appropriate.
“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.

“Police have a responsibility to appropriately balance the rights of the public who are going about their daily business lawfully and the rights of those protesting.”

The College of Policing has confirmed today that they will produce guidance outlining the additional powers given to officers over the last year.

National Highways is also reviewing its guidance, taking learnings from previous protests to ensure that roads are reopened as quickly as it is safe to do so.

Today’s announcement is the latest step in the Government’s continued commitment to tackling the highly disruptive protests that the British public has been increasingly subjected to over the last few years.

Through the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act, the Government introduced a statutory offence of public nuisance and created powers for the police to place conditions on unjustifiably noisy protests and increased the sentences for obstructing the highway.  Measures already announced in the Public Order Bill include creating a new criminal offence for interfering with key national infrastructure and for ‘locking on’.

The Prime Minister also sat down with the Home Secretary and police chiefs in December to give a clear message that the Government expects protesters who disrupt the lives of others to be swiftly removed and arrested.

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