Thatcher funeral: Police plan to arrest protesters under 'draconian' Public Order Act

  • @kunaldutta

Campaigners reacted angrily last night after Scotland Yard suggested protesters should consider avoiding Baroness Thatcher’s cortège – because they face arrest under a controversial public order law.

A Metropolitan Police spokesman told The Independent yesterday that demonstrators were more likely than usual to be held under Section 5 of the Public Order Act, because mourners are considered particularly vulnerable to suffering distress.

The law allows police to detain those who cause "alarm, harass or distress", and officers will be given discretion about how they interpret the law. A Scotland Yard spokesman urged protesters to consider "staying away" and that, because of the vulnerable state of those in attendance, arrests under Section 5 could be "higher up the agenda" than usual.

The advice was met angrily by protesters who described it as "draconian" warning that the deployment of arrests under the Public Order Act that was testament to an "era of compulsory mourning".

Val Swain, of the police monitoring campaign group Netpol, said: "This is a public state occasion not a private family funeral. The power is so wide-ranging that it gives police huge discretion over who they can arrest. It is tantamount to arresting people that are not supportive of Thatcher's ideology."

The Deputy Speaker Nigel Evans MP defended the cost of the funeral, adding that he does not know where the much-cited £10m figure has come from.

Speaking on ITV's Daybreak show this morning, he said the Bishop of Grantham, the Rt Rev Dr Tim Ellis, had "got it wrong" over his description of the scale and the cost of the funeral as a "mistake" which may play into the hands of extremists.

"He has got it wrong," he said.

"I do not know where the £10 million figure has come from. It is going to be substantial sums but when you have got the Queen and other world leaders coming in for this funeral, then you are always going to have substantial security costs.

"So we are where we are."

He added: "We have just had an amazing Olympics which cost billions, we have had an amazing Diamond Jubilee which cost well in excess of £10 million - the world was looking at London, we do pomp and ceremony incredibly well. We are talking about marking the passing of the first woman prime minister in this country and indeed of the western world.

"Yes, I think it is going to be done in the right way but pomp and ceremony is something we do awfully well."

Tens of thousands of people are expected to attend the funeral on Wednesday as Lady Thatcher's coffin travels through London to St Paul's Cathedral.

A full military rehearsal for the funeral took place in the early hours of this morning, with organisers saying the run-through went "very well". (Click here or view gallery above for a gallery of this morning's preparations)

Scotland Yard has worked closely with Downing Street and the Home Office to finalise security arrangements and last night appeared to soften its stance by granting permission to those planning to turn their back on the funeral carriage.

Alongside the funeral, simultaneous demonstrations are expected to be held around the country, including Yorkshire, where miners will mark the anniversaries of the closures of their pits.

Nine demonstrators arrested during a "death party" in Trafalgar Square were charged by police yesterday. Police had arrested a total of 16 people for a range of offences assaulting police, affray and drunk and disorderly.

David Lawley-Wakelin, who was charged under Section 5 last year for heckling Tony Blair at the Leveson Inquiry, told The Independent: "This law has become used at the whim of judges and applied spuriously as it was in my case. It is eroding free speech and taking us closer towards countries [where] we are trying to stop this from happening."

The present law allows police to detain those who cause 'alarm or distress'