Arms factories now ‘prohibited places’

IssueJune - July 2024
This sign appeared outside an Israeli arms company’s offices in Bristol on 25 April. Photo: via Netpol
Feature by Netpol

The sudden appearance of a ‘National Security Act 2023’ warning sign outside the Bristol offices of Israeli-owned arms manufacturer Elbit was a reminder to campaigners that as well as expanding public order laws, the government has also introduced sweeping changes to espionage laws that cover places where protests regularly take place.

Although this legislation was presented as necessary to counter hostile threats from foreign intelligence services, Netpol warned in 2022 that new police powers pose a threat to the right to protest, not least because previous new laws aimed at issues like stalking and anti-social behaviour quickly become tools for disrupting protests.

In this case, the new National Security Act does not define what is meant by activities that are ‘prejudicial to the safety or interests of the United Kingdom’. In the past, this has been stretched to include anti-arms trade and peace campaigners.

Why has this new warning sign appeared now?

The National Security Act replaced the Official Secrets Act in July 2023. However, it was only in mid-April 2024 that Campaign Against Arms Trade unearthed an Industry Security Notice issued by the ministry of defence (MoD) to clarify the Act’s definition of a ‘prohibited place’, one where new offences and police powers apply.

Far from covering only military bases and nuclear sites, the MoD notice says:

‘The definition of prohibited place includes any UK land or building used for defence purposes in support of the invention, development, production, operation, storage or disposal of weapons or other equipment or capabilities of UK forces and research relating to it. All UK Defence Supplier land or buildings used for the purposes described above are therefore by default deemed to be prohibited places under the Act.’

In other words, the facilities of practically every single arms company that supplies Britain’s defence establishment – including all those that Palestine solidarity protests have targeted – are now ‘prohibited places’.

The MoD encourages companies to erect warning signs as ‘the use of signage may assist with prosecutions under the Act’, but also advises that ‘each Supplier should weigh the possible benefits against the potential need for anonymity’.

Where such signs appear, the chances of the police intervening are thus more likely.

What new powers and offences are in the National Security Act?

There is a serious offence of entering ‘a prohibited place for a purpose prejudicial to the UK’, which covers a person who ‘accesses, enters, inspects, passes over or under, approaches or is in the vicinity of a prohibited place’. This includes taking photos or videos. [The maximum sentence is 14 years in prison – ed]

There is also a lesser offence of simply entering somewhere designated as a ‘prohibited place’ without authorisation. [The maximum sentence for that is six months in prison – ed]

The powers given to the police in these areas are of greatest concern for those campaigning against the arms trade, as they include the power to tell people to leave a ‘prohibited place’ and land adjacent to it. Failure to comply is an offence. [Maximum sentence: three months in prison – ed]

The Act does say an officer must ‘reasonably believe that exercising the power is necessary to protect the safety or interests of the United Kingdom’. However, there is ample evidence in protest cases where what officers believe is ‘reasonable’ is often simply unlawful.

Are arrests or prosecutions likely?

These new warning signs and the threat of this legislation are designed to intimidate and deter people from exercising their right to protest at arms companies.

However, protests at arms companies are still legal.

This legislation does not alter our rights of freedom of expression and assembly, to object to the genocide profiteers on our doorsteps.

Importantly, while there is potential for its abuse, the most serious charge and the repressive police powers rely on a person acting against the ‘interests or safety of the United Kingdom’ which is a very high threshold to reach.

Nevertheless, the presence of warning signs and the mere threat of arrest on the grounds of ‘national security’ is a powerful way for the police to frighten people into leaving an entirely legitimate protest – or from taking part in one in the first place.

This is why it is so important to know your rights and stand your ground if you are threatened with arrest – see ‘What should we do if we are threatened with these powers?’ below.

The government has deliberately not excluded journalists or campaign groups from the possibility of arrest or prosecution, because it says foreign powers ‘could pose as journalists or members of civil society groups or operate through proxies in order to make it more difficult to be prosecuted’.

The home office claims its focus is solely on ‘specified activity around the UK’s most sensitive sites where it is clear that such activity could be detrimental’.

This does seem to suggest arrests and prosecution of protesters for the more serious offence, with the higher burden of proof, are much less likely than the offence of unauthorised entry or more common offences like aggravated trespass.

That does not, of course, completely preclude the possibility of the state deliberately targeting prominent campaigners or organisers with serious charges, as one of Palestine Action’s co-founders was in 2021.

The home office also says:

‘[T]he government has committed to working with the police to ensure that there is clear guidance in place to ensure that the powers in relation to prohibited places are policed appropriately.’

Netpol intends to find out what official guidance is provided as soon as we can.

What should we do if we are threatened with these powers?

Be prepared. Make sure everyone taking part in protests at arms companies has a ‘Know Your Rights’ training and, at the very least,

  • knows Green and Black Cross’s five key messages,
  • has a bust card, and
  • has written the Protest Support Line number – 07946 541 511 – on their arm.

If you think there is a possibility of arrests, arrange for the presence of Legal Observers (at least two weeks in advance, if possible). Contact the Scottish Community & Activist Legal Project (SCALP) in Scotland, or the Independent Legal Observers Network (ILON) in England and Wales, for further information.

Don’t feel intimidated. Just because a police officer threatens you with an arrest, it does not automatically mean they have the power to do so. Demand an explanation of the powers an officer wants to use and challenge them to explain how doing so ‘protects the safety or interests of the United Kingdom’.

Film everything. See the Netpol rough guide to filming the police.

Take legal action. If you think that the police have tried to shut down your protest unlawfully, seek advice on whether it might be possible to take further legal action. See the Netpol Recommended Solicitors List for civil law firms you can approach directly.

Contact Netpol. We are monitoring and documenting how and whether these new powers are used, so please let us know if you are threatened with them.


Green and Black Cross five key messages

No comment
You do not need to answer police questions, so don’t.

No personal details
You don’t have to give details under any stop and search power.

No duty solicitor
Use a recommended solicitor with protest experience.

No caution
Don’t sign a caution. It’s the same as pleading guilty to an alleged offence that might never get to court.

What power?
If you’re told to do something by a police officer, ask ‘What law are you using?’ and ‘Why are you using it?’ to challenge the police to act lawfully.