How to police protest

IssueJune 2009
Feature by Emma Sangster

Ten days before the G20 events blew up a storm of public interest around the rights of protestors, the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR) published its report on “Policing and Protest” – to little media interest.

Whilst perhaps stating the expected (there are no “systematic human rights abuses”, but “the presumption should be in favour of protests taking place without state interference”), the report acknowledges that policing of protests has become “heavy-handed” and recommends a number of useful legal and operational changes.

Welcome changes

The JCHR concluded that counter-terrorism powers, such as stop and search under Section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000, should not be used against “peaceful protestors”. Government guidance relating to s76 of the Counter Terrorism Act 2008 should address “concerns about its improper use to prevent photographing or filming police”. Protestors should be able to make representations when an injunction is sought against them. Reference to insulting words or behaviour in Section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986 should be removed “so that it cannot be used inappropriately to suppress the right to free speech”.

The committee firmly recommended that there should be no requirement for prior notification of protests – a timely counter to the “SOCPA effect” that is influencing policing well beyond the vicinity of Parliament.

Police in Liverpool have conducted a sustained campaign against “unauthorised protests” and leafleting, stating that: “an environment where any group of people are allowed to conduct random demonstrations or protests without control or organisation can quickly escalate to anarchy.” Also to be welcomed on the local level, is the recommendation that the Government should consider “the position of quasi-public spaces [such as shopping precincts] to ensure that the right to protest is preserved”, given the “increasing privatisation of ostensibly public space”.

More generally the report concluded that: the police should get more human rights training; “effective dialogue with protestors” (aiming for “no surprises” policing) should be fostered; and there should be a “quick and cost free system for resolving complaints and disputes in advance of protests taking place”. There should also be more understanding that “the deployment of riot police can unnecessarily raise the temperature at protests”.


This report is the latest to call for the repeal of sections 132-138 of the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act (SOCPA) which restrict protest around Parliament. However, while it dismisses the need for advance notice of such protest, and rejects the idea of a time limit for protests in the area, it does call for additional police powers under s14 of the Public Order Act to ensure access to Parliament and to deal with “security risks”. The report recommends a “designated area… within 300 metres” of Parliament, where additional powers could be enforced. Although smaller than the current SOCPA exclusion zone, such an area would extend well beyond Parliament Square and Downing Street.

After introducing their Freedom Bill, which seeks to repeal 20 pieces of legislation attacking civil liberties, the Liberal Democrats have reintroduced as a Private Member’s Bill, the Government’s proposed but seemingly dormant repeal of SOCPA.

The JCHR report also stops short of calling for a repeal of s128 of SOCPA relating to criminal trespass at designated sites such as military bases. However, it does recommend that designation on the grounds of national security needs to be justified.

More inquiries

The JCHR inquiry has been reopened to deal with G20, the Tamil demonstrations and the pre-emptive arrest of 114 climate change protestors in Nottingham.

The Independent Police Complaints Commission, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary, the Home Affairs Select Committee and the Metropolitan Police Authority are also conducting investigations into policing at G20.

There is much to be learnt from viewing the evidence from these inquiries – energy companies arguing that their sites should be “designated” under SOCPA, protest behaviour being analysed by companies and the police, and, of course, the experience of many campaigns. These inquiries are a real opportunity for activists to go on the record about their experiences and to make the most of the current mainstream focus on civil liberties.

More challenges

There are also legal challenges in the pipeline, including an appeal to the European Court of Human Rights on the recent Law Lords judgement that the police acted lawfully in the use of a “kettle” at Mayday 2001; Climate Camp are requesting donations for a challenge as to the reasonableness and proportionality of the containment they experienced at G20; and Liberty and the 114 Nottingham protestors are also mounting legal challenges.

It will be interesting to see how the defensiveness and evasiveness of the police, and the more challenging allegations against them, including the use of agent provocateurs, are handled by the G20 inquiries. Furthermore, will issues such as the surveillance of protestors, intelligence-sharing and maintenance of a protestor database be addressed?

Ultimately, will the systematic repression that many demonstrators experience be subtly reduced to a series of policing failures and individual misconduct?

Meanwhile, protestors new and old are standing their ground; there is a growing consciousness, a new determination and a number of new right-to-protest campaign groups. In a timely reminder that this is an old debate, Friends of Blair Peach, a teacher killed by a police baton 30 years ago at an anti-fascist demonstration in Southall, have renewed their call for the internal police investigation to be made public. No police officer was ever charged or disciplined.

The Special Patrol Group became the Territorial Support Group.

Emma Sangster

Emergency meetings initiated by the beleaguered speaker Michael Martin, involving Westminster Council, the Greater London Authority (GLA), the police and the home office, have resulted in new proposals for controlling protest around parliament.

The new proposals would give the police even more powers to move people on from Parliament Square, and make it illegal for demonstrators to camp out in the square overnight. Prompted by the Tamil protests, such measures would finally make Brian Haw’s protest unlawful. A further proposal is that Westminster Council hand over ownership of the square’s pavements to the GLA, headed by Conservative mayor Boris Johnson.

This would make it very difficult for anyone to protest in the vicinity as GLA byelaws do not allow anyone to “make or give a public speech or address”.

Experience from Trafalgar Square indicates that unless protestors undergo a lengthy (and perhaps costly) authorisation process, their freedom of expression may be suppressed by a “heritage warden”.

Topics: Civil liberties